Neiman Marcus and Saks both just reported disappointing sales and earnings. And both cast most of the blame on the strong dollar’s effect on their tourist business. There was also some whining about the unseasonably warm weather, low oil prices and volatile capital markets.
To be sure, these factors have not been helpful. But the problems in the luxury market go deeper, particularly among the department store players. First some quick context.
The widely held notion among analysts that luxury brands are immune from the vicissitudes of the economy reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of their actual customer base. Yes, a significant percentage of the business comes from the very wealthy, who are not very price sensitive and not affected much by the sturm und drang of the economy. But for all but the most rarified brands, most luxury retail spending comes from what I call the “solidly affluent” (others call them HENRY’s–High Earners Not Yet Rich). These customers have much more volatile spending and much greater price sensitivity (I know this well from 4 years at Neiman Marcus diving into the data and conducting scores of studies). When the economy wanes they pull back. When prices get too high they shop less frequently or trade down to lower priced brands.
So with that as a backdrop–and going beyond the near-term headwinds– here are the key reasons I see a tough longer-term outlook for luxury retail–at least in North America:
- Little new customer growth. Other than through e-commerce, luxury retail has had a tough time with customer acquisition for more than a decade. With e-commerce maturing, unfavorable demographics (see below) and few, if any, new store openings, luxury department stores, in particular, will struggle to replace the customers they lose.
- Little or no transaction growth. While not widely appreciated, most of the comparable store growth in luxury retail for quite some time has come through prices increases, not growth in transactions. There is nothing to suggest this trend will change.
- Unfavorable demographics. Affluent Baby Boomers have propped up the sector for the past decade or so. But as customers get older they spend less in general and quite a bit less on luxury products. The Baby Boomers are slowly but surely “aging out” of the sector. Gen X is a smaller cohort and there is little evidence they will spend as much on average as the Boomers. Over the longer term, Millennials will need to make up for the Boomers who, to put it bluntly, will be dying off. So far, most studies suggest Millennials will be more price sensitive and less status conscious then then the cohorts ahead of them.
- Limits to price increases. For about 15 years, average luxury retail prices have grown at more than twice the general rate of inflation. In accessories it’s more like three times. Prices just don’t rise forever without affecting demand.
- Shifts in spending. The affluent continue to value experiences and services over things–and are allocating their spending accordingly. Maybe this multi-year trend will start to reverse itself. Color me skeptical.
- The omni-channel migration dilemma. Saks, Neiman’s and others are spending mightily on all things omni-channel and frankly the ROI is often terrible. Now they must do so to remain competitive. But it’s incredibly expensive to create a more integrated customer experience and, for the most part, the better you get at it the more you accelerate a shift to digital away from physical stores. Most often this is not accretive to earnings. For either Neiman Marcus or Saks to get a pay-off they need to grab market share. And the reality is they have more competition on the higher end part of their business from the wholesale brands that continue to open up stores and dramatically improve their e-commerce game. And on the lower end of their business they are playing catch up with Nordstrom.
For me, what I see is a sector that clearly has immediate term headwinds. But, more importantly, I see a sector that has much more profound long-term demographic and psycho-graphic headwinds. A sector that will have increasing difficulty wielding it’s tried and true big hammer of price increases. A sector that can no longer count on e-commerce for much new customer growth A sector that has 2-3 years of significant investment in digital and omni-channel capability building just to remain competitive.
Even if the dollar weakens or oil prices rise or we have colder winters, it’s still not a very pretty picture.