HONG KONG/MACAU Let's hear it for the boys. China's fashion-forward men are snapping up Gucci and Burberry bags, driving a rebound in the luxury market months after a slow down in spending by the world's biggest luxury goods buyers spooked global investors.
Men account for about 55 percent of China's luxury goods market, well above the global average of 40 percent, according to research from brokerage CLSA, partly because businessmen often buy expensive gifts to curry favour with government officials or potential associates.
Companies such as Burberry Group Plc and LVMH which sell luxe clothing and accessories benefit from this gift-giving culture, and wealthy Chinese men's penchant for designer ware.
But they are also at risk of big sales swings because men are less likely than women to splurge on discretionary purchases in times of economic uncertainty, CLSA's research shows.
"Men are not prone to impulse shopping," said Mariana Kou, CLSA's consumer and gaming analyst in Hong Kong. "They tend to wait a little if the economy is pretty uncertain."
Chinese shoppers account for one-fourth of all luxury purchases globally and last year surpassed U.S. consumers to become the world's top spenders on luxury goods, according to consulting firm Bain & Co.
When China's economic growth slowed to a three-year low in the middle of last year, luxury demand dropped suddenly, sending shudders through a global market worth $280 billion last year according to Bain's estimates.
Burberry warned of weak sales in July and again in September, sparking fears of a sector-wide slump.
But as China's growth picked up to 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter after seven straight quarters of slowdown, sales rebounded. Burberry said last week its Asia-Pacific sales rose 15 percent in the three months to December, led by China and Hong Kong, while its European business was flat and the Americas up just 2 percent.
Sales of men's clothing were up more than 50 percent over the final three months of 2012, Burberry said, and men's accessories such as handbags rose nearly 40 percent.
"We remain very confident about the growth prospects for the China market generally," Burberry's Chief Financial Officer Stacey Cartwright said after the quarterly data was announced.
"Specifically quarter by quarter it's always difficult to call. We are encouraged by the rebound that we've seen in this quarter," she added.
HEY BIG SPENDER
Burberry's bounce-back lifted the shares of its high-end peers. The Dow Jones luxury index rose 2.1 percent last week and is up 6 percent so far this year, double the 3 percent rise in the broader MSCI world equity index in 2013. China's economic revival may help lift the sector further.
Just last week, customers toting paper bags bearing the logos of Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Prada and other global luxury brands were out in force at malls in Hong Kong and Macau, two nearby destinations for wealthy mainland Chinese shoppers.
Personal assistant Da Fei trailed behind his boss, a real estate businessman from Mongolia, carrying items from Hermes and Kenzo through the upscale One Central Macau shopping centre in China's gambling capital.
"He likes to buy everything, particularly Hermes and Gucci," Da Fei said as his boss, decked out in salmon pink trousers and a black and white shirt, browsed inside a Kenzo store.
At the Gucci store in Macau's Wynn casino, four men clustered around a glass counter examining leather wallets, while seven other men browsed items such as the 6,000 patacas ($750) shoulder bags. Only two women were in the shop at the same time, while other customers queued up outside, waiting for security guards to let them in.
The Louis Vuitton and Kenzo brands are owned by LVMH, the world's largest luxury group. Gucci is owned by French group PPR.
PARTY ON POST-CONGRESS
Luxury looks like it could stay strong through the first quarter, largely due to the Chinese New Year celebrations in February and then the National People's Congress in March, where government positions will be confirmed - and gifts bestowed.
Data from Hong Kong, a popular shopping destination for wealthy mainland Chinese, shows retail sales are starting to perk up. They jumped 9.5 percent on the year in November, with jewellery, watches and other valuables up 13.7 percent after a 2.9 percent decline in October.
About 3 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong in November, up 30 percent from a year earlier, according to the tourism board. Macau's numbers paled by comparison, with a 3 percent rise to 1.5 million mainland visitors for the month.
But with Beijing cracking down on corruption, retail watchers caution that China may not deliver the explosive growth that made it a vital market for luxury brands after the global financial crisis in 2008.
Chinese buyers backed away from buying bling before the once-a-decade Party Congress in October, when the new leadership was announced, so the strong November figures from Hong Kong may reflect a burst of pent-up demand.
Sales of watches and pricey liquour took the biggest hit after the corruption crackdown, according to a survey from the Hurun Report, known for its annual China Rich List.
Consumers are also becoming more choosy and sophisticated, preferring more inconspicuous luxury goods to logo-centric names such as Louis Vuitton.
But with 1.3 billion consumers, many with a strong inclination for expensive brands that scream status, China remains a driving force in the luxury market.
"The intention to purchase is very high right across the board, from Coach to Bottega Veneta," said Shanghai-based author Paul French, chief China market strategist at Mintel, which specialises in Chinese consumer trends.
"I think the only reason there was a dip was because the gifting market, the corruption market was of course weak last year because you didn't know who to buy for." ($1 = 7.9855 Macau patacas) ($1 = 0.7486 euros)
(Additional reporting by James Davey in LONDON; Writing by Emily Kaiser; Editing by Miral Fahmy)