Why luxury means more than one thing in China


China's wealthy have been buoying luxury brands for years, with high-end Western retailers like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry touting their wares across the upmarket shopping districts of Shanghai and Beijing.

But China's just seen the steepest cut-back on spending in at least five years, according to a survey by the Hurun Report - rather bad news for the brands that have bet their growth on the country.

The loss of shopping appetite comes as the Chinese government clamps down on corruption and gifting, along with growing tastes for overseas shopping which means customers can avoid consumption taxes on luxury goods as high as 40 per cent.

Moreover, the number of wealthy Chinese staying in the country is shrinking. One in three high net worth people has left or is planning to leave.

Speaking to Reuters, Ruper Hoogewerf, Hurun Report founder and chief researcher said:

In terms of traditional luxury - leathers, accessories, watches - this year is going to be flat if not a little bit down.

For luxuries like tea, healthcare, even education, we are still looking at a booming market.

Cartier jewellery and IWC watchmaker Richemont said last week that weakening Asian demand saw sales to slower-than-expected in the third quarter.

And LVMH (Moet Hennessey, Luis Vuitton), the largest luxury goods group in the world, saw slowing sales across 2013, dragged down by China.

However, Burberry, which reported its third quarter results yesterday, saw double-digit growth in Asia Pacific - led by China. It doesn't seem to have been hurt in the same way as Cartier.

This might be because Burberry is significantly cheaper than Cartier.

Here's an example: a Burberry bracelet will set you back around £350 to 500. A similar item from Cartier starts at £5,000, sliding up to £30,000 within one collection.

China may well be seeing the emergence of a clearer, mid- high-end market - affluent customers willing to spend hundreds, but not thousands. There's luxury, and then there's luxury.

While high-end luxury is suffering as those that still want the priciest stuff are going abroad to buy, well-regarded designer brands that are expensive (but perhaps a twentieth of those further along the spectrum) are still attracting customers.