Mercury Sees Luxury Sales Slowing

MT0Mercery managing director Alexander Reyebok said sales had fallen at the TsUM shopping center but remained solid.
PARIS -- After months of resilience, Russian shoppers have finally started to rein in spending on pricey items such as fashion apparel, said the managing director of Mercury, the country's biggest luxury goods group.

"We are dealing with relatively wealthy individuals who continue to buy luxury goods regardless of the crisis, but still there is a little slowdown," Alexander Reyebok said in a telephone interview.

Mercury, which started as a jewelry shop in Moscow 15 years ago, now generates more than 1 billion euros ($1.37 billion) in annual sales and is widely regarded as a gatekeeper for the entry of foreign luxury goods into Russia, the fourth-largest luxury goods market and one of the world's fastest growing.

Mercury sells a wide selection of the world's top luxury goods from Gucci and Prada handbags to Maserati and Bentley cars and Chopard jewelry. But the group wants to be low-profile, and it does not have an elaborate web site, just displaying a logo against a red background. Mercury also owns the TsUM department store and the leafy Barvikha luxury village.

Reyebok said business remained solid at TsUM but that trading had started slowing down and had even begun to decline at some stand-alone shops that are not part of malls. He declined to give the names of brands affected.

This week, TsUM's extravagant food hall, usually abuzz with the Moscow elite, was empty. Mounds of black caviar and whole lobsters were left untouched in fridges.

"Freestanding shops have a bit of a slowdown," Reyebok said.

"Usually, we enjoy some growth versus the previous year. This year, there could be not much growth, and even [some shops] come below that of previous years," he said referring to self-standing boutiques.

Reyebok said the slowdown had become more noticeable in recent weeks. "The negative effect is coming up only now," he said.

Looking ahead, Reyebok said the New Year's season this year would be tough to call. Sales could either hold up or slightly improve.

"We think it should not be worse than 2007 and perhaps even improve," he said about Christmas trading. He declined to give forecasts for 2009.

But if the sales of certain luxury goods may be weakening in Russia, Russian investors' appetite for art shows no sign of abating.

This month, Mercury acquired control of the centuries-old auction house Phillips de Pury & Co that once held sales for Marie Antoinette and Napoleon and until two years ago belonged to French luxury goods group LVMH.

"I think there is a lot of potential [in the art market] ... particularly the contemporary art market," Reyebok said.

Phillips' rivals Christie's and Sotheby's, which opened a Moscow branch last year, estimate that they will raise around $1 billion in sales in London and New York before the new year.