LVMH in the recession
The substance of style
The world’s biggest luxury-goods group is benefiting from a flight to quality, but the recession is also prompting questions about the company’s breadth and balance Sep 17th 2009 | Paris | from the print edition
“THERE are four main elements to our business model—product, distribution, communication and price,” explains an executive at LVMH, the world's largest luxury-goods group. “Our job is to do such a fantastic job on the first three that people forget all about the fourth.” For decades LVMH's formula has worked like a spell: seduced by beautiful status-symbols, perfect shops and clever advertising, millions of people have swooned forgetfully towards the firm's cash registers. At Louis Vuitton, LVMH's star company, the model's pricing power has yielded consistent profit margins of around 40-45%, the highest of any luxury-goods brand. These days customers are finding it far harder to forget about price. The seriously rich, of course, are still spending freely. But much of the industry's rapid growth in the past decade came from middle-class people, often buying on credit or on the back of rising house prices. According to Luca Solca of Bernstein Research, 60% of the luxury market is now based on demand from “aspirational” customers rather than from the wealthy elite. The recession has quickly reversed the trend to trade up, and people are delaying expensive purchases. Bain & Company, a consulting firm, expects the industry's sales to fall by a tenth in 2009, to €153 billion ($225 billion). Some executives even expect a lasting shift in customers' preferences, towards discretion and value. Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, believes that the whole industry needs to rebrand itself. “The word luxury suggests triviality and showing off, and the time for all that has gone,” he says. Brands which sold “blingy” easy-to-sell products, milking old names, he says, will fare particularly badly in the new environment. LVMH, by contrast, has never taken such an approach, he says, instead emphasising quality, innovation and creativity. To underline these values, the group is going back to basics in its daily operations. “Before the crisis, we were putting a lot of energy into beautiful stores, but now we care a bit less about expanding our network and even more about design and price,” says an executive. A few years ago, for instance, at the height of the boom, one LVMH brand was putting diamonds all over its watches, so that it was almost difficult to tell the time. “Now we are getting back to what really matters, which is nice movements and design,” he says. For some luxury firms, the recession's effects have already been brutal. Private-equity firms and other outside investors which rushed into the industry at its peak have suffered most. “At the top of the market this industry was perceived as easy by outsiders,” says Mr Arnault. “You borrowed 80% of a target's asking price and hired a good designer, but the strategy has not been successful in several cases.” Lenders to Valentino, an Italian fashion house, are reportedly trying to renegotiate its debt. Permira, a private-equity group, bought the firm in 2007 in a deal valuing it at €5.3 billion. Permira has since written down its equity investment of about €900m by more than half. Prada Holding, through which Miuccia Prada and her husband control Prada Group, another Italian house, recently restructured its loans in order to defer payment to banks. Prada Group has denied that there are talks to bring in a minority shareholder. Two particularly weak firms, Christian Lacroix, a Paris-based ready-to-wear and haute couture label which used to be part of LVMH, and Escada, a German maker of luxury womenswear, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Amid this turmoil, LVMH is performing relatively well (see chart 1). It has benefited from an...