WALL STREET JOURNAL | SUZANNE KAPNER Makers of luxury handbags may need to let customers keep a little more in their pocketbooks.
After years of absorbing aggressive price increases, even wealthy buyers are now pushing back, threatening what has been the sole source of sales growth when the business is already under pressure in China and Russia, two important markets.
Designers in the $280 billion personal-luxury business have reacted by offering a wider selection of lower priced satchels that are smaller and often made of less expensive material.
Gucci’s fall 2014 collection included a small Swing tote priced at $1,100, compared with $1,350 for the medium-size version. The tote is getting even smaller and less expensive for spring with a mini version priced at $940. Prada SpA, too, has been downsizing some popular versions of its handbags. It introduced a small Saffiano bag last fall for €750, or about $839, less than half the price of its larger classic Saffiano bag, which goes for €1,800.
“It’s a noticeable shift, and it’s something we’re seeing more of in the last six months,” said Robert Burke, a former fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman who now runs a consulting firm.
Gucci, a label owned by the French holding company Kering, and Prada declined to comment on their pricing strategies.
What started as a fashion trend away from big, bulky bags to slimmer looks has created an opportunity for companies to court shoppers who aren’t willing to spend $4,000 on a purse.
Jessica Badger of Houston who handles marketing for an oil and gas firm hasn’t bought a handbag in two years. But she said she has noticed that there is a wider selection of bags priced below $1,000, and that might tempt her to shop this year.
“The lower priced bags are a good idea, because there is some middle ground now,” Ms. Badger said.
The moves follow a rapid rise in prices over the past decade that has far outpaced increases in the cost of labor and materials. Sarah Willersdorf, a principal with the Boston Consulting Group, analyzed the pricing of seven luxury handbag brands from 2002 to 2012. On average, prices rose 14% a year over that period, far more than the 2.5% annual increase in inflation.
“I used to buy two handbags that were $2,000 each, but now I buy one bag for $4,000,” said Drew Paul, a stay-at-home mother, who lives in New York City. “Sometimes I feel sick for buying them, because they’re so expensive.”
Fewer shoppers appear willing to go along now. Louise Singlehurst, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, estimates that price increases accounted for 220% of the sales growth for luxury leather goods and accessories last year, meaning that without the higher prices sales would have declined. By comparison, she estimates that price increases accounted for 18.5% of apparel sales and 42% of sales for items like jewelry and watches in 2014.
“We’ve reached a tipping point where the price increases are not sustainable,” Ms. Singlehurst said.
Bain & Co. estimates that sales of personal luxury goods like handbags and jewelry grew just 2% in 2014 to €223 billion ($282 billion at the year-end exchange rate), compared with a 9% compounded annual growth rate from 2009 to 2013. According to Bain’s estimates, sales fell 2% in mainland China last year, the first decline in over a decade, and 18% in Russia, which has been hurt by sanctions and the devaluation of the ruble.
Mulberry PLC, a British leather-goods maker, has been adding more handbags priced below £1,000 ($1,537), after an attempt to add higher-end handbags turned off shoppers. “We have listened to our customers,” Executive Chairman Godfrey Davis said in June.
At Fendi, a label owned by luxury-goods giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the Micro Peekaboo bag costs $1,550. That compares with $3,100 for the Mini Peekaboo and $4,500 for the large size. Readers of Vogue voted the Micro, which is just big enough for a cellphone, a bank card and a lipstick, the “It” bag of 2015. Fendi declined to comment.
The downward pressure on pricing doesn’t apply to all companies. Analysts say Hermès and Chanel still have strong pricing power, fueled in part by strategies that keep their best-selling items in short supply.
Still, even a midtier player like Coach Inc., which has been taking prices higher by adding more bags over $400, found that it didn’t have enough products at the lower end this past holiday season. Coach plans to rectify the situation in time for the holidays this year.
“We will be adding products in the under $300 and under $200 range,” said Victor Luis,Coach’s chief executive, in an interview.
Vaness Leann, a model and actress from Los Angeles, says she buys about 20 designer bags a year. She pointed to Gucci, which she said has been adding more options at the lower end. “It’s great, because now I can buy more bags,” Ms. Leann said.