Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Las Vegas Shows - 2013

I must apologize for being 'off the radar' for these past weeks, as a series of events have preoccupied me and precluded me from stopping long enough to give this blog some thought.  Nothing bad at all, though, just concentrated activity.

Among that, of course, was attending the shows in Las Vegas.  This year I had the need to work intensively with a large number of vendors at the Luxury, JCK and Couture shows.  It was an exhausting (as usual) few days, but filled with timely conversation.  In sum, after years of tight economic conditions, high gold and diamond prices, and growing shortages in fine colored stones, the industry is showing its ability to adapt, or not.

Some vendors have really come through with well thought out lines that are innovative and address market realities.  At the high end, in fine non-bridal lines, we saw excellent use of 18 karat gold with diamonds and color.  In silver, designs have greatly improved, as has quality, and price points have distinctly moved up.  Colored stones have become more important.  Other alternative materials (titanium, steel, wood, bronze, etc) are there but not in large numbers.  Diamonds remain most important, but that sector is now enmeshed in struggles for dominance.  (I will cover that subject separately in the next blog!)  In all cases, there is a realization that the public is beginning to adapt to higher prices and has been buying again. 

Many vendors have upgraded their systems and now give quick service when asked for proposals, line sheets and product revisions.  Some deliver printouts on the spot.  In some cases, we saw combinations of US-based marketing, sales and product development capabilities well-integrated with Asian manufacturing.  In some of these cooperative efforts, a desirable level of comfort and efficiency has been attained.  I suspect there is much more to come along these lines.

At the same time, we saw many small American designers with high quality lines that they make themselves here in the US.  Many need help in achieving success, and often are ill-prepared to deal with a difficult and changing market.  I took time to make suggestions, even where the lines were not suitable to my client's needs.  I would like to see our young designers succeed.

Retailers relate a range of experience.  In most cases, dollars are up, units are down, and margins are down.  I am reminded of a comment I heard years ago from a salesman in a clothing store.  I had just bought two suits, and in the course of the purchase I asked him how business was.  He said. "lousy."  I asked why.  He said that customers like me would have bought three suits in years past.  But, as prices had risen and business dress was becoming more casual, business was down by a third.  Market position is more critical than ever - image conveyed to the consumer, location and merchandising specifically - and it tells.  Some independents up big figures.  One prominent operator said business rests on three areas - bridal, Rolex and Pandora ("don't ask me to explain!") - and sales this year up good single digits overall.

So the question we have to ask is, what can we learn from recent experience?

I have long held, together with other commentators, that the Millennials, the demographic that has become critical to all luxury businesses, are a different breed.  What seems to be emerging is a strong, independent mentality.  Traditional values and thinking may or may not be relevant for them.  Cars (and "cruising") are no longer top of mind; marriage may or may not be important before having children; security and social action are gaining importance; jewelry is nice to have, but needn't be expensive; and the "establishment" is to be viewed with caution and skepticism.  It is as if we took the hippie generation and overlaid it with social and financial responsibility.  

We hear of the affluent buying, but not as often and at more modest prices.  While this is not true of the new nouveau-riche  - Asians and Russians flush with mountains of cash - it does have profound importance to retailers and suppliers. 

This cultural shift is in process, and we know not where it is headed with any certainty.  But the jewelry shows are important for observing and learning, perhaps more so than ever in the past.  The industry remains a highly diverse, fragmented and specialized business, but not everything will continue to be viable.  Retailers, more than ever, need to be present in order to distinguish between stagnating modes of the past and burgeoning models of the future.