Recession or not, when Erin Lima makes the trip from Philadelphia to New York City, “shopping is inevitable.”
“Every time you come here you have to,” she said, while browsing the handbag section of Bergdorf Goodman on Saturday with her husband in tow. “You can’t help yourself.”
The Limas and another couple got “the best deal ever” on a weekend at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Battery Park City, she said: $250 a night on a deluxe suite overlooking the park, with a cook-to-order breakfast and free drinks during cocktail hour included in the rate. “Can you stand it?” Ms. Lima asked in a hushed, conspiratorial tone.
Though she said she is a bargain-hunter by nature—Ms. Lima bought the black cashmere, fur-collared coat she wore Saturday, for instance, for $75—this year one does not need to be a particularly discerning shopper to find deals. Ironically, she purchased a vintage leather clutch-sized wallet “with the cutest snaps you’ve ever seen” from Delfino for $100.
“You just have a budget,” Ms. Lima said of how the economic downturn has influenced her shopping habits. “You stick to your budget and have a good time within the budget.”
Other consumers appear to be abiding by similar recession-spending rules as the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, approaches.
“Things are a little slow,” said wardrobe consultant Julie Biandi while hunting for clients at Barneys with a friend. “A lot of them are relying on me to shop more methodically. Before, people would call me to shop for them at stores, but now they are doing more shopping in their closet.”
Rather then buy a new party dress this season, she is helping clients scour their wardrobes for a great black dress and accessorizing it with costume jewelry, like a Vera Wang bangle.
Though the current fourth quarter of 2008 is supposedly one of the worst in retail since the Great Depression, elite Manhattan department stores were packed with shoppers over the weekend; Fifth Avenue was aglow with holiday lights; and the city issued its first gridlock alert of the season.
“I’ve never seen it like this with so many sales and the department stores are in shambles,” said Betsy Reynolds, a visitor from Alabama who strolled through Barneys with the air of a native New Yorker. Ms. Reynolds, 57, makes two trips a year to Manhattan with her 19-year-old daughter, Lauren.
Both mother and daughter agreed that this has been their most “frustrating” retail expedition yet and they prefer to shop when “everything in the world is [not] on sale.” “Going to Bergdorf, which to me is the classic department store that there ever was, you know we went up there and the whole store was in shambles like a low-class department store.”
“I would rather buy at regular price than to go through all this,” her daughter chimed in.
LUXURY BRANDS THAT A year ago would never deign to put “Sale” signs in their windows before the New Year are now in “survival mode,” according to Renee Kopel, the marketing director for the 122-year-old William Barthman Jewelers in the Financial District. Walk-in traffic has plummeted since September and, for the second year in a row, their corporate gift gallery is competing against an iconic blue box: Tiffany’s opened an 11,000-square-foot Wall Street branch in October 2007.
Ms. Kopel began circulating an e-mail urging longtime clients—many of them from the shrinking financial services sector—to buy gifts from William Barthman during what will likely be the most ascetic winter in years and advertising 20 to 40 percent off most merchandise. “We are extremely mindful of the state of the economy and we want to try and help,” Ms. Kopel wrote in the e-mail. “Gift giving will be inevitable regardless of the state of the economy, so it might as well be as affordable and as painless as possible.”
Last Wednesday, Ms. Kopel had successfully wooed back the head of a Lower Manhattan dental practice who defected to Tiffany’s last year, and was busy preparing the order. “I called him and said, ‘[Tiffany’s] is a big chain and they don’t need your help. I do,’” she said. “And he came back.”
For good measure, Ms. Kopel also offered to cut the price of 18 Orrefor crystal ornaments from $40 to $15 each. She will have to keep up the pace through the New Year if William Barthman is to avoid laying off employees or further cutting back their hours.
A corporate employee at Gucci, who was shopping at their Fifth Avenue branch, said bargains were drawing customers to department stores in droves. “I was just at Saks the other day and it was incredible,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a madhouse, because you know their sales haven’t been doing that well so there is that extra 50 percent off.”
She insisted that though people are being a little bit more cautious this year, they are still willing to pay for that “little bit of Gucci.” “Everyone’s still buying,” she said, but when pressed for details about the merchandise being sold she slashed her finger across her throat to get me to turn off the recorder.
THERE ARE A FEW stalwarts in the luxury sector who refuse to cut prices. Eugene Venanzi, a bespoke tailor who owns the eponymous boutique on West 56th Street, believes in “holding true to your standard” whatever the climate.
“We never do a sale,” Mr. Venanzi said from what he called the Swedish, neo-classical boutique he opened three years ago. “You have to look at things from your focus. If you open a shop like this, you’re saying your long range is based on quality and exclusivity and the classicism of exclusivity. Our approach is classic. We’re not a Prada. We’re not coming out with a new design every four to six months. … For me to take a navy pinstripe suit that, let’s say, is $4,000 and make it available for $2,500, then replace it two months later and put it out for $4,500, doesn’t prove anything.”
So far, the “buy less, buy better” philosophy has “not been too bad,” he said. Venanzi’s ready-to-wear suits start at $2,700 and a custom-made one can run from $15,000 to $20,000. “It sounds vulgar,” Mr. Venanzi said, “but it’s true.”
Though their midrange clients who earn between $250,000 to $500,000 per year are being more cautious lately, plenty of longtime customers are still willing to splurge on a suit. About three weeks ago, for instance, an American who lives outside the city placed an $80,000 order that included a $45,000 topcoat made of the highest classification of refined wool, Vecunia.