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Most people would agree that it’s good to be rich, but for retailers, it’s better for their shoppers to be really, really rich. Just look at luxury retail sales.

The ultra-wealthy are continuing to shop, but the “merely” wealthy are holding onto their purse strings a bit more tightly, going for value, at least by their definition.

“The aspirational shopper, the merely wealthy, is slowing down,” said Bernard J. Haddigan, a managing director of Marcus & Millichap, Atlanta, resulting in slower sales at luxury chains that attempted to straddle both the ultra-affluent and those who want to feel that way.

Neiman Marcus, for example, recently reported a comparable sales increase of 1.7% for fiscal 2008, though fourth-quarter comparable-store sales declined 1.4%. Nordstrom, which appeals to both the ultra-wealthy and aspirational, reported a comp decrease of 6.0% for its most recent quarter.

The definition of ultra-wealthy can vary by location – an exceptionally high income for some parts of the United States funds a more middle-class lifestyle in New York City. In fact, a net worth of $25 million to $50 million is “not the range of Rolls Royces,” Haddigan said, defining the extremely wealthy as those households with a net worth of at least $100 million. But the extremely well off, and the wannabes are still in the market.

“Emotionally, people are still conditioned to shop,” he said. “The ultra high net worth individual is less than 1% [of the population], but their buying power is still 15% to 20% of the market.”

But where the wealthy shop may change. The “merely” wealthy will shop at Costco, which has a wide range of premium goods at value prices. But their more affluent brethren will be there, too. Through August, the company has reported a comp-store sales increase of 6% in the United States, though rising gas prices are a major factor in the increase.

“A lot of the very wealthy got that way by understanding how to manage their money,” Haddigan said.

The merely wealthy, instead, are looking for value, albeit in a different way from those who frequent discounters. Rather than spending $5,000 on an outfit, the merely wealthy now may choose to spend a comparable sum on artwork, which may increase in value. Major purchases are now seen more as investments than indulgences.

“That consumer is out there and spending, but looking for value-based assets,” Haddigan said. “There also is a mindset to have some liquidity, and those assets [such as artwork] do have residual value.”

Not surprisingly, the retail vacancy rate is rising because of both high construction levels and recent tenant weakness, Marcus & Millichap notes. The company anticipates at least 7,000 store closings this year. However, some sectors, such as grocers and pharmacies continue to do well. Rite Aid’s difficulties are due more to its capital structure than sales, Haddigan said. Restaurants other than McDonalds (with comp increases of 3.4% in the most recent quarter) are “being beat up badly.”

That doesn’t necessarily affect the ultra-rich. But those who wanted to feel that way are cutting back.

“This is a question of discretionary vs. necessity,” Haddigan said. “And a lot of the discretionary is slowing down.”

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