Luxury retail hits the wall

For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that the luxury market was largely impervious to the ups and down of the economy. Yet recent results suggest otherwise and even with an improving macro-economic picture and booming stock market, most U.S.-based luxury retail brands continue to struggle.

A little over a week ago, reports surfaced that Neiman Marcus was looking to restructure its debt after a series of disappointing quarters. While Neiman Marcus faces unique challenges owing to high leverage from its 2013 buyout and a botched systems implementation, they are also being hit by a general malaise affecting the sector. HBC’s Saks Fifth Avenue division revenues have stalled during the past year. Nordstrom, which was once a shining star in the retail pantheon, has seen five straight quarters of declines in its full-line stores. Tiffany and Kors are among other brands facing similar declines. So what’s going on here?

The most common explanations for faltering performance have been the strong dollar’s impact on foreign tourism and a weak oil market. To be sure, these factors have not been helpful. But the problems in the luxury market go deeper, particularly among the department store players. Even an improvement in foreign tourism or the oil market are unlikely to return the sector to its former glory. Here’s why:

  • Little new customer growth. Other than through e-commerce, luxury retailers have had a tough time with customer acquisition for many years. With e-commerce maturing–and most recent reported gains merely channel shift–unfavorable demographics (see below) and very few new store openings, luxury brands are struggling to replace the customers they are losing.
  • Little or no transaction growth. While not widely appreciated, most of the comparable store growth in luxury retail has come through prices increases, not growth in transactions. To change this dynamic companies need to appeal to a wider range of customers and that’s proven difficult to execute in an intensely competitive environment. Brands must be also be careful not to dilute their brand relevance and differentiation in an attempt to cast a wider net.
  • Unfavorable demographics. Affluent baby boomers have propped up the sector for more than a decade. But as customers get older they tend to spend less overall, and quite a bit less on luxury in particular. Baby boomers are slowly but surely aging out of the segment. Gen X is a smaller cohort and there is little evidence they will spend as much 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. Most studies suggest millennials will be more price-sensitive and less status conscious then then the cohorts ahead of them. This is a major long-term headwind.
  • Growing competition. Strict control over distribution largely insulates the luxury market from intense price competition and having to go head-to-head with Amazon. Nevertheless, full-price luxury is increasingly being cannibalized by retailers’ own growing off-price divisions. Luxury brand manufacturers are also aggressively investing in their own direct-to-consumer efforts by improving their e-commerce operations and continuing to open their own stores. Luxury websites like Net-a-Porter are gaining share of a no longer expanding pie.
  • Shifts in spending. Affluent consumers continue to value experiences and services over things–and are allocating their spending accordingly. Perhaps this multi-year trend will start to reverse itself. Perhaps.
  • The omni-channel migration dilemma. Luxury retailers are spending mightily on all things omni-channel, as they must to remain competitive. But it’s incredibly expensive to create a more integrated customer experience. The better a retailer becomes at this, the more business shifts from physical stores to digital. Most often this is not accretive to earnings as brick & mortar economics get deleveraged and online shopping is plagued by high returns and expensive logistics.
  • Looming over-capacity. While the luxury sector does not face the pressure to close stores that the broader market does, stagnant sales and a continued shift to digital channels will start to put more and more pressure on full-line store economics. Moreover, there is growing evidence that the high-end off-price sector is approaching saturation. The rationale for a Saks and Neiman merger may start to make more sense and some pruning of locations seems inevitable.

Notwithstanding the capital structure issues Neiman Marcus must deal with, the luxury market does not face nearly the same immediate challenges that many parts of retail must address. Nevertheless, there is mounting evidence that the sector’s struggles go beyond foreign currency woes and the vagaries of the oil market.

Profound change is coming to luxury as well and most of the headwinds simply aren’t going away.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.

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