NEW YORK - The rich are tightening their belts, too. Even though some are still buying Gucci.
Faced with a recession and a major downturn in the stock market that together have brought the sharpest decline in net worth in nearly 50 years, wealthy Americans are reevaluating their priorities. They are slashing their spending at a rate unseen in decades - a move that could have dire consequences for the economy, luxury stores, and high-end brands.
In response to the increasingly subdued shopping mood that began late last year, luxury retailers are cutting their inventory, changing the assortment of products they offer, and tweaking their advertising messages.
To be sure, many of the ultrarich are not exactly scrimping. Some are still spending $100,000 for a fur coat or $600 for a pair of shoes. But increasing numbers are picking through mounds of discounted designer goods to save money in an uncertain economic time.
The affluent clients who still shop at Ultimo, a Chicago designer-clothing boutique, are buying fewer items and choosing special pieces that are less flamboyant, owner Sara Albrecht said. She said her shop had suffered a 20 percent drop in sales from a year ago.
Luxury sales overall were down 23 percent in the five weeks ended Dec. 6, according to SpendingPulse, a data service provided by MasterCard Advisors L.L.C.
Such behavior differs dramatically from even just a year ago, when luxury stores could not keep up with wealthy consumers' appetite for extravagance. But the financial meltdown has deflated the demand that reigned for much of this decade, resulting in plummeting sales for many luxury purveyors.
That has forced high-end stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to offer discounts of up to 70 percent before the traditional start of the holiday shopping season - akin to the practice of their downscale competitors.
Aspirational luxury shoppers, those whose average annual salary is about $150,000, began cutting back a year ago, said Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute L.L.C., a research firm. That spiraled up the economic scale to wealthier families after the economy worsened this year.
Single-digit millionaires - those with assets of less than $10 million - began pulling back sharply starting in March, when the Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. nearly collapsed and was bought by JPMorgan Chase & Co., Pedraza said.
And the ultrawealthy with a net worth above $10 million - who account for about 60 percent of sales and 20 percent of the customer base at top luxury stores - started cutting back in September, when the financial crisis ballooned, Pedraza said.
"This is no longer a state of mind or what feels right," said luxury consultant Robert Burke. "This is a reality of where people's bank accounts and investment portfolios are."