The Coronavirus-Era Shopping Response to a Downturn: Trade Up - Kanebridge News
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The Coronavirus-Era Shopping Response to a Downturn: Trade Up

By Suzanne Kapner
Thu, Dec 17, 2020 6:13amGrey Clock 4 min

Shoppers have a new mantra this year: Treat yourself.

Stuck at home and spending far less on travel, experiences and dining out, consumers are trading up on everything from designer handbags to diamond jewellery, according to industry executives and market-research firms.

The splurging defies the norms of past economic downturns, when consumers traded down to less-expensive items. And it isn’t only the well-off taking part. Less-affluent shoppers are buying items like premium spaghetti sauce or salon-worthy shampoo that was previously out of reach or thought to be not worth the price before the coronavirus pandemic forced people to curtail activities and isolate.

Stephanie Moon bought a Chloé handbag on sale for around A$890 this summer as a reward for signing her first client to her newly launched consulting firm. The 38-year-old San Francisco resident said she doesn’t usually buy designer bags, but felt like she could afford one now.

“I’m saving so much money, because I’m not going anywhere or doing anything,” she said. “Normally, I’d treat myself to a night out with my girlfriends, but that wasn’t an option this year.”

Millions of Americans remain out of work, and jobless claims are at their highest level since September. Yet despite some signs of slowing growth in November, retail spending has been strong relative to the broader economic outlook, boosted by a surge in online shopping. The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will rise 3.6% to 5.2%. Shoppers have been loading up on Christmas decorations, which are in short supply, as they try to brighten dreary, pandemic days.

After years of watching consumers, especially young ones, shift their spending to experiences, retailers across the spectrum say they have noticed more splurging on things, from luxury chains like Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Saks Fifth Avenue to Macy’s Inc. and Signet Jewelers Ltd., owner of the Jared chain.

“Over the past few years, consumers have been making choices, ‘Do I take a trip to Rome or buy a handbag?’ ” said Marc Metrick, the chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. “This year, the decision has been eliminated.”

Mr Metrick said the biggest burst of demand is from shoppers who crave luxury products but can’t regularly afford them.

Neiman Marcus Chief Executive Geoffroy van Raemdonck said wealthy shoppers are buying more-expensive jewellery, shoes and handbags. “The same customer who would have bought one handbag last year is buying two this year, or is buying a more-expensive bag,” Mr. van Raemdonck said.

Neiman Marcus, which emerged from bankruptcy in September, has also attracted “entry-level” consumers who rarely, if ever, shopped with the luxury chain before Covid-19, he said. To appeal to them, it recently announced a partnership with payments company Affirm to offer instalment payments over six to 36 months at no extra charge.

NPD Group Inc. found that customers across various income levels, from those making less than $25,000 a year to those making more than $100,000 annually, are spending more on retail purchases than they did a year ago. Notably, for lower-income consumers, that spending didn’t dissipate after the stimulus checks ran out this summer.

“The growth rate in retail sales at the low end is higher than at the high end,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry adviser. “Consumers are gilt gifting, sending bigger, better gifts and rewarding themselves.”

Signet’s Jared chain is seeing the most growth at the highest price points, including items costing more than US$5,000, according to Bill Brace, Signet’s chief marketing officer. At Jared, sales of 2-carat loose diamonds and luxury watches are up 30% from Nov. 1 through mid-December, compared with the same period a year ago. Over the same period, sales of 1.25-carat diamond stud earrings have climbed 40% compared with last year.

Mr Brace said sales in those categories are growing at a rate of two to four times Signet’s overall sales growth in the most recent quarter. The company also owns the Kay Jewelers, Zales and Piercing Pagoda chains.

“Women are looking for zoom-worthy jewellery,” Mr Brace said. “They are going bigger on diamond studs.” He added that one Signet customer in Colorado recently bought three special-edition watches that cost more than US$10,000 each. “It’s unusual for someone to buy three at one time,” he said.

Macy’s customers are buying more-expensive jewellery, handbags and sleepwear, with shoppers spending more on each item than they did on similar purchases in the past, according to a spokeswoman. At the company’s Bloomingdale’s chain, affluent customers are snapping up luxury products.

“It’s not just because people are buying the snob apparel,” said Tony Spring, Bloomingdale’s CEO. “People realize you can have really nice things that don’t come close to costing what experiences cost.”

The strong demand has allowed some luxury brands to raise some prices, according to Erwan Rambourg, HSBC Holdings PLC’s global co-head of consumer and retail research. This spring, Louis Vuitton raised prices about 8% globally, while Chanel instituted a roughly 5% price increase, he said.

A Chanel spokesman said the brand, like most other luxury labels, regularly adjusts prices to reflect changes in production costs, raw-material prices and currency fluctuations, and also to help avoid price discrepancies between countries. Louis Vuitton declined to comment.

“Since Covid hit, you’ve had a tendency from consumers to buy less, but buy better,” Mr Rambourg said. “Unlike after 9/11, which made spending on luxury seem vulgar and inappropriate, today there is no stigma.”

Sarah Johnson has been buying Givenchy lipstick, Chanel blush, and Yves Saint Laurent eye shadow, often spending $200 in one shot. Before the pandemic, the 52-year-old New York City resident, who works in public relations, would have been satisfied with drugstore brands.

Now she is considering buying a designer handbag as a holiday gift for herself. “I would never have bought a designer bag in the past, but maybe I’ll use the money I saved for vacation to buy that Balenciaga bag I’ve always wanted,” she said, referring to the brand’s bags, which cost upward of $1,000.

Shoppers of all incomes are also trading up in everyday purchases like bottled water and spaghetti sauce, according to IRI, a market research firm that tracks $1.1 trillion in consumer-products spending.

“We expected low-income shoppers to buy more value brands,” said Krishnakumar Davey, president of IRI’s Strategic Analytics practice. “But they are buying higher-end products.”

Roy Cohen says he is saving $2,000 a month since he stopped paying rent on his Manhattan office in June. The 65-year-old career counsellor cancelled his vacation and is dining out less.

Instead, the East Hampton, N.Y., resident says he is donating more to charity and splurging on things like premium olive oil. In the past, he said he would have bought the generic version at Costco Wholesale Corp.

“I’m very value-oriented,” Mr Cohen said. “Before, I never would have thought expensive olive oil was worth the money.”



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”