by Vanessa P'Connell



Global sales of luxury goods could plunge by 15% to 20% in the first half of 2009, according to new estimates.

The forecast, to be released Tuesday by consultancy Bain & Co., says sales of luxury products globally will drop sharply in the first two quarters this year before stabilizing in the second half. Overall, Bain predicts that global luxury goods sales will fall 10% this year, to EUR153 billion - about $201 billion.

Bain & Co. analyst Claudia D'Arpizio, based in Milan, sail she sees a trend of luxury shoppers switching to lover priced items from their favorite brands. "The situation now is a little bit worse than what we thought it would be back in October," she said. Bain produces one of the few outlooks on the global luxury goods markets, and its forecasts are closely watched.

The U.S., which accounts for roughly a third of the industry's sales, is one of the worst-hit markets. Bain expects American sales of high-end goods - clothing and accessories, as well as tableware, cosmetics and jewelry - to drop 15% this year. That compares with expected sales declines of about 10% in both Europe and Japan.

Among the major luxury categories, apparel is expected to suffer the most, declining 15% globally. Among retailers, orders of high-end winter 2009 merchandise are down significantly. "What is happening in apparel is that shoppers are more and more looking for value," D'Arpizion said.

"Some are mixing and matching expensive items with cheaper clothing. Others are waiting for markdowns and looking for high discounts," she added. "Fashion alone can no longer justify a big premium."

Sales of jewelry and watches are likely to fall 12%, while sales of high-end shoes and other leather goods are expected to fall 10% overall.

Despite the expected steep declines in sales in the U.S., Europe and Japan, which together account for more than 80% of worldwide luxury good sales, there are some smaller markets that are showing promise. Bain expects sales of luxury items to rise 7% in China and 2% in the Middle East this year.

High-end merchants now are among the worst-hit segments of American retailing. On Thursday, Neiman Marcus Groups Inc.(NMGA) and Saks Inc.(SKS) posted sharp declines in March comparable-store sales of 29.9% and 23.6%, respectively.

The luxury market showed zero growth in 2008, according to the new Bain study. The market started strong with 5.5% growth in the first quarter and 2% growth in the second, but that was followed by a flat third quarter and a decline of 8% in the last quarter, the study says.

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