LONDON (Reuters) - London’s super-rich, their numbers swelled by fat cats from China, Russia and the Middle East, are spending more on luxuries than before the financial crisis, but there are signs that some may be cutting back on the cream.
The global luxury goods market grew 10 percent to 191 billion euros ($249 billion) between 2010 and 2011, surpassing the 2007 peak of $170 billion on the back of strong appetite from Chinese customers, data from consultancy Bain & Co shows.
“From what we’re finding, despite global events, luxury is really experiencing almost an anti-crisis,” Tory Frame, a consumer products and retail expert at Bain, told Reuters.
At the very top end of the luxury sector, a long waiting list for private jets is evidence that London’s super-rich have so far proved immune to the downturn.
David Dannreuther, a London-based partner at law firm Withers who helps super-rich clients purchase private jets, said demand was as high as ever, with typically three to five private plane deals valued at up to $50 million a year.
One of these transactions was the purchase of a jet for a family who no longer wanted to subject their dog to the indignities suffered by pets on commercial flights.
Further down the scale, boating enthusiasts were splashing their cash at the London Boat Show, despite consumer morale in Britain sinking to its lowest in almost three years in December, as the country grapples with high inflation, slow wages growth and the highest level of unemployment in 17 years.
“The super-rich are still super-rich -- they’re just a little bit less super-rich. But there’s still demand for larger and larger boats like the Sunseeker 28, which was launched at this show,” said Michael Enser, head of marketing at the British Marine Federation.
Essex Boatyards, an exhibitor at the annual event, had sold 14 boats, including a 1.1. million pound new Fairline Squadron 50 yacht, by the penultimate day of the show.
Most buyers were existing clients -- successful businessmen aged 40 to 70 -- who were looking to upgrade the boats they already own, Managing Director Nick Barke said.
“A lot of these guys have enough money not to worry too much,” he said. “Their attitude is that there are no shops in heaven!”
Ian Tyldesley, a 63-year-old retired surgeon, was one of the visitors looking for a bigger boat and said he had a 65,000 pound budget.
“I’ve got a boat already -- a 25-foot cruiser racer -- but I‘m looking for something a little bit bigger, because it’s a bit cramped if you go away for the night,” he said.
The luxury car market is booming too. Sales of Rolls-Royce cars jumped 30 percent in Britain last year, and Bentleys rose 5 percent.
But there is anecdotal evidence that this market has not escaped the economic downturn entirely unscathed.
Joe Doyle, Chief Executive of H.R. Owen, which sells new and secondhand luxury marques such as Aston Martins, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, said his marketing team was having to redouble its efforts as it was becoming harder to entice customers to buy cars.
“I think in particular on the new car front, we benefit from being in the London bubble of economic wealth, but those around the periphery have absolutely been affected, and they’re the customers that we are having to work much harder to bring back into the showroom,” he said.
Doyle said the car dealer had sold more used cars since the economic downturn, partly because some consumers at the lower end of the elite were being more careful.
Sales in London’s West End shopping and theatre district, which includes Bond Street -- famous for its designer boutiques and jewelers such as Graff -- Oxford Street and Regent Street, rose 3.1 percent last year, according to a report commissioned by the New West End Company.
But even in London, a favorite playground and choice residence for the world’s plutocrats, the free-spending elite is narrowing and becoming more cautious, according to those trying to part them from their cash.
British shoppers at luxury bag retailer Anya Hindmarch are more apprehensive about spending than they were before the recession and are mostly buying small products like leather goods or discounted goods, sales consultant Diana Estrada said.
“They used to come in and say, ‘I’ll have it’, but now they don‘t. The oriental customers still do; they come in and they’ll buy six in one go,” she added.
Most of the retailers on Bond Street interviewed by Reuters said spending on luxuries by tourists and international buyers, particularly Chinese customers, remained strong, though cracks were appearing in the confidence of some London-based buyers.
Data from Global Blue, which arranges sales tax refunds for foreign shoppers, shows sales to tourists rose 25 percent on Bond Street in 2011, far outstripping total growth, with the average visitor spending 1,126 pounds, 10 percent more than in 2010.
Wealthy domestic consumers are owning up to caution as economic headwinds blow.
“It made me cut back on spending a bit, rather than going all out; I‘m just choosing one luxury item, rather than going crazy,” said Fiona Santokie, a 33-year-old London-based renewable energy broker, who had just purchased a coat from upmarket fashion chain Marina Rinaldi on Bond Street.
Further down the road luxury leather goods shop Tod’s is struggling to shift top-end items made of exotic leather and crocodile skins as consumers rein in their spending and seek sale items, a sales assistant said.
Some owners of high-end watches, which can cost as much as 60,000 pounds secondhand, are even selling their timepieces to meet their financial commitments, secondhand shop Watches and Jewellery of Bond Street said.
Those signs look likely to multiply in 2012, with Verdict Research retail analyst Ruta Perveneckaite saying this year would be more difficult for the luxury sector due to concerns about the European and North American economies and the possibility of a double-dip recession.
($1 = 0.7665 euros)
Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Chris Vellacott and Will Waterman