By Liana Grey
LAS VEGAS — Elaine Wynn’s famed resorts here, the Wynn and the Encore, survived the recession. “The luxury market is alive and well,” she told a packed session that kicked off the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Annual Conference on Sunday.
The return to normalcy was visible last weekend on the strip, which was packed with the usual mix of stroller-pushing tourists and boisterous crowds heading to slot machines and poolside lounges – including the Beach Club, a popular party spot at the Encore.
But like most in the industry, Wynn and her ex-husband, casino mogul Steve Wynn, couldn’t bounce back without tweaking their business plan.
“We had to close one of our finest restaurants, much to our dismay,” she said at a View-style panel discussion hosted by Faith Hope Consolo, the chair of Prudential Douglas Elliman’s retail division.
In a ballroom at the Las Vegas Hilton, about 300 women – and the occasional man, like Consolo’s business partner Joe Aquino – sat at tables draped in orange cloth, sipping one of three choices of wine.
It was the ICSC’s second annual Women in Retail Special Interest Group, one of 12 breakaway sessions held on the first day of the conference, in and around the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center, and four industry leaders swapped advice on how to handle today’s breed of customer.
At the Wynn hotel, out went a Daniel Boulud bistro and in went the Lakeside Grill. “That had a different price point, but still a gay and happy and joyful environment,” Wynn explained. “It’s a matter of being value conscious.”
That’s the new motto of shoppers across sectors. “People are still cautious and they’re working on paying off their debt,” said fellow panelist Terri Simard, vice president of law at Target, which itself cut costs during the recession by developing its own properties.
The cost-conscious trend means fewer impulse purchases, whether at Target or a Fifth Avenue boutique.
At a party thrown by a fashion magazine earlier this month, an employee of Graff, the jewelry chain, told Wynn that special, quality stones are in high demand. “People are more interested in intrinsic value,” she said. “They want their bling, but they want to convince themselves it’s an investment.”
Then again, sometimes all shoppers need are shoes and jewelry that won’t max out their credit card. “My bling comes from Target,” joked Holly Cohen, senior vice president of J. Crew, who lives in Miami and travels regularly to New York.
She isn’t the only fashion-forward professional with a Target necklace: the post-recession era has brought the resurgence of what Consolo calls the “cross-shopper.”
When hunting for beauty and fashion basics, Target costumers aren’t quick to cross the aisle for international designer goods, Simard said, but they will mix and match mid-range ones.
“People will pair Target with J. Crew with Saks,” she said. “They’re more adventurous.”
J. Crew took note of this trend, Cohen said, and introduced a diverse range of lines in-house, including bridal gowns and the Collection, which she calls “higher-end, but still cheaper.”
The brand is also thriving thanks to celebrity endorsement. Newlywed British princess, Kate Middleton has been spotted in Crew, and the Obama family are regular customers: the First Daughters sported the company’s dresses on inauguration day two years ago, and their father has worn J. Crew ties. When Michele Obama appeared in a J. Crew skirt, Cohen said, “that was huge.”
But there are other ways to lure customers in this age of tight spending – like stocking shelves with grocery items. To enable one-stop shopping, Target now offers a selection of produce, as do some Walmart megastores. “Fashion follows food,” said Consolo.
On an upscale level, of course, that means bringing in restaurants to under-served areas. “It not only revitalized neighborhoods, it brought retailers to neighborhoods they’d never even thought of going,”
Consolo explained, pointing to the Flatiron District, which underwent a foodie renaissance that paved the way for a new J. Crew shop to thrive there.
Trendy dinner spots are a risky business, but cosmetics, chocolate, and wine sales are always stable, the ladies agreed.
People will pop open champagne to celebrate, and “when times are bad, they drink to feel better,” Consolo said.
At one point, an audience member asked whether the panelists themselves had faced dark moments – a deal gone bad, say, or lack of respect from the old boys’ club. Consolo teared up recalling some rough patches at the start of her career, which she handled not with a bottle of wine, but with phone calls to a mentor. “He told me to stop whining,” she said.
Renee West, president of the Luxor and Excalubar resorts, and one of the first female executives on the Strip, was shocked by how fast Las Vegas crashed during the credit crisis. “We grew so fast and we fell so hard,” she said.
Wynn recounted a night in 2003, during the post-9/11 downturn, when a hotel deal was close to falling apart. “We were making late night phone calls, we needed to get a chunk of money,” she said. Wynn left her Manhattan room, walked two blocks to the nearest temple, and prayed, she admitted.
The deal went through – thanks to the same kind of savvy decision-making that kept the Wynn and the Encore afloat in Las Vegas. “If you didn’t learn the lessons, capitalism has a way of punishing you a second or third time,” she said.