Looking to take a bite out of the luxury sector but can't afford the high price tag? Maybe you should consider a nibble, instead.
Over the past year, experts said they have begun to see the return of the "aspirational" shopper—someone whose income isn't high enough to make them a true luxury buyer but still has an appetite for designer duds.
Although these consumers are still on the hunt for chic items that make them feel like a 1 percenter, they're doing so in a much different manner than before the recession, when they were willing to rack up thousands in credit card debt to snag a $4,000 Chanel purse.
Instead, today's aspirational shoppers are more rational about their luxury purchases, buying smaller items that come with a lower price tag, choosing accessible brands that offer a range of products at a lower cost, and hitting the outlets and other off-price stores to hunt for deals.
In other words, they're trading up instead of stretching up.
(Read more: Luxe Christmas gifts for the 99%)
"What we've seen in the past year is that the aspirational consumer is coming back, but is coming back in a true sense of trading up," said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.
New means of attaining luxury
Before the recession, aspirational shoppers—often people with a household income of about $100,000—were responsible for a large chunk of consumer spending, Ben-Shabat said. But when the economy dropped off in 2008, they disappeared from shopping centers and online stores along with the rest of the population.
As the economy started to show signs of stabilization, evidenced by a better employment picture, lower gas prices and a steadying housing market, the mid-tier shopper was more reluctant to ramp up their spending habits. Over the past year, however, they have begun gravitating toward smaller-ticket designer items, such as sunglasses or beauty products, so they can once again satisfy their need for indulgence without breaking the bank, Ben-Shabat said.
(Read more: Holiday gifts she really wants)
"It gives them the opportunity to participate in the brand without stretching themselves," she said.