Stealth wealth - city loses its flashy image

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2006, 12:00am

'Stealth wealth' is emerging as the new ethos for Hong Kong's super-rich where if you have it, it's better not to flaunt it.

Owning brand names is simply not enough any more for the city's increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable big spenders, American Express research found. They need the thrill of 'discovering' a luxury item for themselves, or even going to see where it's made and buying it direct.

They also demand more from sales staff and expect them to be at least as well informed as they are about an upmarket item.

But it's not only about the prestige. The city's super-rich are also finding inner satisfaction equates to sophistication, and everyday pursuits such as hiking and cooking are in vogue.

'Hong Kong is renowned for its outward demonstration of the trappings of wealth,' the survey notes.

'But the picture is changing. Today, flashiness is out, subtlety is in, and a new affluent persona is emerging.'

The insights into the changing spending habits of the city's rich come from American Express research into the needs and desires of the wealthy in six cities across the Asia-Pacific region.

By interviewing a wide range of affluent people and service providers, they are establishing a database and analysing it to reveal new trends in lifestyle choices.

Pamela Arway, American Express president of the Japan, Asia-Pacific and Australia region, visited the city last week to release the findings of the research on Hong Kong's wealthy.

In 2004, Hong Kong was estimated to have 74,000 citizens with liquid wealth of US$1 million or more, and this figure is projected to exceed 100,000 by 2009.

'This kind of research is vital for us to ensure that we stay in touch with our clients in this market,' she explained, 'and at the same time we want to share these findings with our partners, the merchants.

'Hong Kong has long been a trend-setter for greater Asia, so our findings here are of particular importance to us.'

The survey produced five key findings on the changing tastes of the city's rich, which point to new trends that Ms Arway said those servicing the affluent market will have to take into consideration.

Discovery is the new luxury

Being the first to discover new goods or services, and possessing unique knowledge about them, brings great social prestige and confers what the researchers have termed 'luxury expertise'.

Finding an interesting new wine from an unknown vineyard, for example, may bestow more kudos than owning a wine cellar stocked with prestigious vintages. Holding expensive or exclusive possessions is no longer enough; the pleasure and status to be derived from them can be enhanced by knowing more about them, preferably by acquiring the knowledge directly.

Ms Arway pointed to an example of a client who, rather than buying an Afghan rug in Central, chose instead to travel to Afghanistan, visit several weavers' studios, study their techniques and then buy a rug directly from them.

Flashiness is out, subtlety is in

As Hong Kong's former nouveaux riches mature and grow in self-confidence, they no longer feel the need for ostentatious displays of affluence. Stealth wealth is in.

'I see many people walking the streets carrying well-known name brand handbags,' one interviewee told the researchers.

'They are everywhere. And I have many versions of them myself! But now, I am looking for something different. Perhaps a new designer, or something uniquely designed. In fact, I have not visited 'mainstream' luxury handbag shops for maybe one or two years now.'

Finding luxury in the everyday

The ability to derive satisfaction from the simple things in life, like cooking or just going for a walk, is increasingly seen as a sign of sophistication. 'My husband suggested one day that we go hiking,' one respondent commented. 'I thought: 'hiking?' But as we went more often, I really felt a kind of peace in my heart. It was such a simple thing to do - just go hiking - but so comforting. A luxury.'

Inner wealth is the new asset

Having achieved material success, Asia's elite are now re-discovering the importance of inner peace and happiness. Without good family relations, friendship and health, the value of tangible wealth appears meaningless. As one respondent said: 'If you work and you're not happy, then there is no point. Now it's about experience, and not just comparing yourself with others.'

Time is more precious than gold

Having time to squander on oneself is the ultimate luxury. 'Ten years ago we would go out to dine most of the time or buy ready-made food from the shops,' a female interviewee said. 'But I cook a lot myself now. I enjoy the process of making food - it takes a lot of skill to make it good! I take the time because it makes me feel involved!'

Ms Arway said American Express would be holding workshops across Asia to discuss the findings, and their implications, with merchants and service providers.

'Firstly, they need to be aware of the developing connoisseur mentality. People want to 'go behind the counter' and learn more about products, discover a unique story behind them,' explained Ms Arway. For example discovery brands will be hot, the survey predicts, as they allow affluent consumers to pioneer new status symbols.

Ms Arway said that this trend did not mean the impending demise of exclusive brands, but that it was important for them to be aware that in today's market a good name was no longer enough, and increased segmentation of product lines and diversity of brand portfolios should be considered to allow people to 'discover' something new.

As consumers become more sophisticated, sales 'experts' will become vital assets. Sales staff will need to become increasingly informed and knowledgeable about their wares, and aware of both the tangibles and the intangibles of the buying experience. Affluent consumers will remember and appreciate knowledgeable sales staff.

Symbols of affluence are becoming more discreet, and loud brand statements and flashy marketing will become less successful. Increased emphasis on subtlety and sophistication will lead to higher expectations of perfection and attention to detail. Finding ways to service the need of more discerning customers offers numerous new business opportunities.


Finding it first is everything

To achieve 'luxury expertise', it is important to discover new knowledge yourself, rather than follow the herd

Flashiness is out, subtlety is in

The way to stand out in Hong Kong today is through understatement and sophisticated appreciation

Sophistication means finding luxury in the everyday

The emerging elite pride themselves on their ability to enjoy the simple things, like hiking or cooking

Free time is more precious than gold

True affluence means possessing the luxury of time to enjoy the fruits of success

Inner wealth is the must-have asset

'Well-being assets' such as newly acquired personal skills or friendships are more important than material possessions