Next wave of store closings may hit luxury: Real estate pro

Outlook on retail earnings 'soft': Analyst
Outlook on retail earnings 'soft': Analyst

It isn't every day you see a sign boasting 40 percent off in the window of a luxury shop. But as real estate executive Andy Graiser walked past one of Prada's New York City boutiques a week before Christmas, that's exactly what he encountered.

Though the design house is working through some internal issues (namely, products that have fallen flat with their target demographic), Graiser, founder of A&G Realty, said such deep discounting at a luxury shop is indicative of broader woes across the luxury space — troubles that could result in the segment being next in line to trim its store fleet.

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The problems that luxury firms are battling are twofold. For one, they're facing macroeconomic pressures including a sinking stock market, stalled global growth and a stronger dollar, all of which discourage the high-end consumer from spending.

For another, they're trying to sell their wares to a group of shoppers who have become less focused on material goods, and are instead more interested in dining out or travel — a trend that could have long-term implications for the industry.

Due to these factors and an overall glut of retail space in the U.S., Graiser predicts luxury retailers will be next in line to close some stores, as they try to compete in a country that has more than two times the retail space per capita than the United Kingdom, France, Brazil and Germany combined.

"There are real issues with some of these luxury players," Graiser said. "There's going to be a lot more closures that are going to be occurring."

'They're all feeling the same pain'

According to preliminary findings from the Bain & Co. research and consulting firm, sales of personal luxury goods — which include apparel and handbags — increased between 1 and 2 percent at constant exchange rates during 2015. That represents a slowdown from the prior year's 3 percent growth, and a significant stall from the 7 percent gain these goods logged during 2013.

But more importantly, a continuation of the issues that plagued these firms last year indicates the high-end consumer may continue to pull back their spending on luxury trinkets.

The U.S. stock market, for example, is off to a rocky 2016, with the S&P 500 down about 6 percent year to date. Meanwhile, China's economy continues to retrench, due to fluctuations in its stock market and a crackdown on luxury spending.

And the U.S. dollar is holding strong against the euro and other currencies, discouraging international tourists from visiting and spending money in the United States.

"From Hong Kong to Shanghai to Jakarta, they're all feeling the same pain," said Vincent Quan, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "It's a softening retail climate."

Although the broader economy is placing added pressure on luxury players, Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report, said problems would have emerged among U.S. luxury players regardless of cooling global trends.

He pointed to the fact that the United States has 20 square feet of retail space per capita, compared to 3 square feet per capita in the U.K., 2 square feet in France and Brazil, and 1 square foot in Germany.

"We get more and more international brands and designers wanting to open up shops over here because they think this is the biggest market in the world," Lewis said. "What they fail to understand is it's also the most complex market in the world."

To his point, Bain's report found that the U.S. personal luxury goods market raked in 78.6 billion euros ($87.6 billion) last year — more than Japan, China, Italy and France combined.

Meanwhile, the percentage of worldwide luxury sales derived from individual retail shops (as opposed to wholesale locations like department stores) grew its share of the market by 2 percentage points, to 34 percent of sales. Helping drive that trend were 600 new directly operated stores that opened in 2015, according to Bain.

"Luxury brands ... face a host of tough issues such as rethinking the size of their store footprint and the role of brick-and-mortar shops in a world of growing digitization," Bain said in its report.

Not a temporary shift

Another, potentially longer-term issue that luxury retailers face is a shift in priorities among high-end shoppers. Whereas affluent consumers used to amass designer handbags by the dozens, they're now more interested in spending their money to travel and experience the world.

Though this is an issue across age all groups, Lewis said it's particularly concerning as it pertains to younger millennial shoppers, who will drive consumer spending for the next few decades.

What's more, when luxury buyers do decide to spend on clothing or accessories, they're no longer shopping exclusively at high-end boutiques or department stores.

Instead, research by The NPD Group/Checkout Tracking Total Channel found that 71 percent of luxury consumers also shop at off-price stores. The research firm also found that 30 percent of luxury buyers shop at fast-fashion retailers, while 23 percent visit luxury retailers' outlet stores.

Spending from luxury shoppers isn't just another drop in the bucket for these second-tier retailers. According the NPD data, luxury retail buyers spend a greater percentage of their total apparel dollars at all three of these discount store varieties.

"That's why these guys are opening up outlet stores," Lewis said.

Though luxury retailers have not been entirely immune to store closings — a slew of brands have recently shuttered shops in the struggling Hong Kong market, for example — Michael Appel, founder of Appel Associates consulting firm, said they've been largely left out of the conversation because their role as global brands requires them to have a presence in the world's largest markets.

But as store traffic continues to slow, and rents at the premiere malls and high-street locations continue to rise, experts agree luxury brands will inevitably need to take a closer look at their portfolios and prune redundant or unprofitable locations from their fleets.

"This whole turmoil in retail's going to continue," Appel said.