It was not very long ago, when the European luxury products market sprung back to life on the back of the booming Asian markets. Right after the global recession, most luxury brands, however, re-strategized their efforts towards the high-end luxury-hungry markets of China and other Asia-Pacific regions. For the last several years, China has been the industry’s main growth engine, helping make up for lackluster demand in Europe and Japan. But this period seems to be ending much sooner than the industry would have wished for.
Leading luxury brands, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Burberry, are losing their shine in the Chinese market, which along with Hong Kong and Macau, represent more than a third of global sales for most of these brands. This premature slump is attributed not only to the stagnation in the Chinese economy, but also to a maturity in consumer tastes in the region.
Over the past few years, there was an explosion of demand for luxury items that communicated wealth and status to the society. However, on the flip side, this led to over-exposure of luxury brands, which in time has resulted in them losing their premium status. This has translated into a shift in priorities among such consumers, who now feel a ubiquitous ‘logo-fatigue’ with such products and are looking for goods that provide a more unique and authentic image.
Unlike the more established European and American markets, where trends and consumer preferences take a long time to form and assimilate, Asian (especially Chinese) markets have witnessed consumer trends emerge, become a fad, and then be rejected, very quickly. The shorter life span of a trend makes it a challenge for these companies to move out of the ‘masstige’ market (a combination of mass and prestige market) and present a fresh take on luxury items with discrete or even absent logos. Several brands, such as Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, have realized this shift in consumer perception of luxury and have been successful in implementing it.
Although most leading fashion and luxury brands have now embraced this trend in their Asian strategy, the demand from China is not expected to recover enough to regain its peak. A large proportion of luxury products’ demand came from China’s deep-embedded culture of lavish gifting for favors (to government officials); however, President Xi’s latest campaign against corruption and lavish gifting have further dampened sales of luxury products, especially watches.
This puts the industry in a challenging spot to re-innovate themselves for the Asian consumers as well as to find new growth frontiers. While other Asian counterparts, such as India, continue to look promising, luxury brands are now establishing presence in African markets. Sub-Saharan Africa is being viewed as a promising market for luxury goods on the back of increasing urbanization, economic development and most importantly a burgeoning aspirational middle-upper class that view luxury goods as a sign of status and success. Although, growth is from a low base, the appetite for luxury goods in this market is expected to soar. Leading brands – Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci, Fendi, and Salvatore Ferragamo, have already set foot in Africa. While these brands are largely concentrated in South Africa and Morocco, luxury sales are also picking up in new markets like Angola and Nigeria.
Although most companies have started focusing on developing themselves in the African markets, it is far-fetched to say that these markets will be able to substitute the demand from China and other maturing Asia-Pacific regions, especially any time in the near future. This puts the industry in a precarious position in the coming years, settling down for moderate growth. Companies that push themselves at this time, to redefine luxury and bring about radical changes to advertising campaigns and store designs to recapture the audience have a strong chance of emerging as market leaders.