Is China falling out of love with luxury?

After attending the FT Luxury Conference in Monaco, I walked away with new reasons to worry about the Chinese consumer who is responsible for 30 percent of global luxury purchases. While there was much debate about how long a slowdown in high-end purchases would last, I began wondering if this could be the Year of the Snail for the high-end Chinese consumer. Based on feedback from the experts on the ground in China, it seems as if no turnaround in sales at luxury retailers is on the horizon.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the drop-off in Chinese luxury-sales growth during the past several years. While most are pointing fingers at the anti-corruption campaign, unrest in Hong Kong, global currency fluctuations or general economic slowdown, a few additional concerns hit my radar screen.

A man rides a bicycle past a Gianni Versace store in Beijing, China.
Nelson Ching | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A man rides a bicycle past a Gianni Versace store in Beijing, China.

Investors may not fully be embracing the extent of the recent slowdown in luxury sales on mainland China. While the likes of Tiffany, Prada, LVMH and Hermes have talked about a slowdown during recent quarters, we heard even more comments regarding current trends in China at the FT conference. For example, one industry expert pointed out that traffic is so slow at stores, fewer salespeople are needed.To drive traffic, discounts of 50 percent are starting to appear at full-price flagships. While the discounts are encouraging sales, watch out for margins.

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American-style discounts have become the new reality for the younger consumer and retailers need to adjust, particularly as average prices in Asia can be higher than those in Europe or the U.S. by 30 percent or more. If Chinese consumers don't see more discounts at home (and not just the last-minute 50-percent off deals) they will continue to shop abroad, leaving stores on the mainland increasingly empty. That raises the question: Is there too much luxury brick-and- mortar capacity on the mainland?

The young, emerging Chinese consumer is losing interest in big-name international brands and increasingly turning to local brands (think Hermes Shang Xia, or Kering's Qeelin). A little brand fatigue should not be underestimated. While Chinese brands are not that easy to find at big shopping plazas, Chinese consumers are increasingly seeking them out.

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Moderation of spending habits is not exclusive to luxury goods. Changes in behavior are showing up in gambling habits (types of wagers and level of bets). Jewelers are also reporting more demand for semi-precious stones, which are priced lower than their precious counterparts.

While all of these observations point to continued pressure in the luxury market, there may be a silver lining in the slowdown. Finally, luxury retailers seem to be getting real about e-commerce, which, by the way, still only represents 5 percent to 6 percent of total global luxury retail sales. As we have seen before, embarking on the ecommerce investment phase is no doubt expensive but can also be the way to re-engage your most productive customer. Burberry is probably the best example of a luxury retailer using online analytics to drive business improvements in stores. While traffic at Burberry stores is down, the company continues to track consumer behavior online and translate that into better intelligence and conversion rates at stores. Other luxury retailers should take a lesson from Burberry on how to make the best of a challenging situation.

Commentary by Stacey Widlitz, the president of SW Retail Advisors Inc., a consulting firm focusing on global retail market intelligence. Follow her on Twitter @StaceyRetail.