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US-based luxury lifestyle and travel TikToker Jeffrey Huang says that he will shop less, or even stop completely, if the US goes into recession. Photo: Instagram

Gen Z consumers are feeling the pinch. For luxury brands, that’s a big problem

  • Gen Z were meant to make up a fifth of all luxury spending by 2025, but inflation and unemployment are hitting the discretionary incomes of young consumers
  • Brands are particularly concerned about young Chinese shoppers, with youth unemployment in China hitting a record of almost 20 per cent in July

From US$300 bucket hats to US$900 sneakers and US$700 T-shirts, the high-flying luxury sector is fretting over the appetite among financially stretched Gen Z consumers for such “aspirational” purchases.

Executives are troubled in particular by a financial hit to young Chinese shoppers, not only because mainland China has been a major driver of the industry’s growth in recent years, but also because high-end consumers in the world’s second-largest economy are a decade younger than the global average of 38.

Young adults around the world have been “a very strong factor of luxury growth over the past decade”, said Grégory Boutté, chief client and digital officer at Gucci-owner Kering.

Data this week showed China’s economy slowed unexpectedly, prompting a central bank rate cut, while macroeconomic trends are disproportionately affecting the extra funds that those born between 1996 and 2012 might use to enter the world of luxury.

Covid-19 lockdowns and a crackdown on big tech firms that traditionally hired droves of graduates have exacerbated China’s youth unemployment problem. Photo: Reuters

While inflation and a rising cost of living are hitting the discretionary incomes of young consumers especially hard in North America and Europe, China’s problem is different.

“In the US, inflation is a huge issue, [it’s] the major focus of a lot of luxury companies … In China, it’s the youth unemployment rate that’s alarming right now,” said Kenneth Chow, principal at consultancy Oliver Wyman.

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Government data for July registers the unemployment rate of China’s urban population aged 16 to 24 at a record 19.9 per cent, exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns and a crackdown on big tech firms that traditionally hired droves of graduates.

“This might be the first time that a lot of young adults [in China] are facing [such an] economic impact, so it will be a testing ground on how these consumers are going to spend on luxury items going forward,” Chow said.

Jeffrey Huang, 28, is a US-based luxury lifestyle and travel TikToker who shares his Louis Vuitton shopping trips and hauls with his 150,000 followers.

“If a recession happens, then I will 100 per cent buy less or maybe even stop buying altogether,” he said.

Huang on one of his shopping trips. Photo: Instagram

A recent Oliver Wyman study showed that some luxury brands are significantly lowering their sales expectations for the Chinese market in response to current conditions, with 80 per cent of executives questioned not expecting a “V-shaped” recovery this year. Oliver Wyman declined to name the brands it surveyed.

Nevertheless, earnings in July from firms including LVMH and Kering painted a picture of resilience in the face of economic headwinds, with luxury players riding a wave of post-Covid spending by their wealthiest clients.

And big brands have signalled their intention to grow top-end sales of US$10,000 handbags and US$5,000 coats rather than focus on attracting new entrants onto the bottom rung of the ladder.

There is this young crowd of consumers that are entering into the market that requires a lot of creativity at more affordable price points
Claudia D’Arpizio, partner, Bain
Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Dior have raised prices on high-margin leather goods several times over the past year. Chanel is even planning stores dedicated to VIP consumers.

“As the prices are rising, I’m becoming more and more cautious because I feel like I did do a good amount of spending in the last year,” said Sara Yogi, a 26-year-old resident of San Francisco, in the US.

She added that she may hold off buying a US$2,900 Prada bag and one costing US$3,200 from Bottega Veneta that are both on her wish list.

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Brands’ shift to focus on core luxury consumers also encompasses a cohort of wealthy Gen Z consumers less likely to be affected by inflation or unemployment.

But the concern is over would-be buyers who were meant to help Gen Z account for a fifth of all spending in the luxury goods sector globally by 2025.

And brands such as Burberry have already noted weakness in sales of sneakers and slides, products Gen Z and millennial consumers have traditionally used as their entry into the world of luxury brands.

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One way for luxury players to continue to attract Gen Z consumers may be to offer aspirational options at entry-level price points that can be worn often, said Yi Kejie, a 26-year-old China-based marketing content manager.

Luxury-branded mobile phone cases, earrings, hair clips and perfumes are all popular among her Gen Z peers in China, Yi said, adding: “These are items with the lowest threshold for [them] to have that logo, that icon.”

Some luxury labels, including Balenciaga and Dior, are embracing the metaverse to seed interest with teens and young adults, offering affordable ways for them to kit out their virtual identities on gaming platforms such as Roblox.

Young people in China are enthusiastic about luxury products. Lockdowns, or the temporary unemployment rate, won’t change their long-term preferences
Yi Kejie, a China-based marketing content manager

Virtual sneakers from brands like Gucci have already proved wildly popular, with a price point of US$17.99.

Whether in the real or virtual world, entry-level products call for high levels of creative investment.

“There is this young crowd of consumers that are entering into the market that requires a lot of creativity at more affordable price points,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner at consultancy Bain, adding that not all brands are equipped for this.

There is good news for brands, however.

Whether they find the right offering of entry-level products, or whether the economic situation of Gen Z consumers improves or not, the desire for luxury products remains undimmed.

“Young people in China are enthusiastic about luxury products,” Yi said. “Lockdowns, or the temporary unemployment rate, won’t change their long-term preferences.”