The New American Aristocracy

A different kind of wealthy class is rising in the United States, and it’s bringing a fresh set of values and expectations to the luxury experience.

To remain competitive, providers of luxury goods and services need to understand these values and cater to the newly moneyed, according to a consensus of about two dozen speakers at a recent luxury marketing seminar.

Advertising and marketing executives, heads of the world’s best-known luxury brands, educators, and professionals representing every facet of the luxury world—from human resources executives to luxury service providers—were among those who attended the three-day American Express Luxury Summit held at the legendary and luxurious Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.

Attendees learned that the number of affluent consumers has never been higher. The rich are getting richer, more people are joining their ranks, and the gap between the affluent and the rest of the population in the United States (and the world) is widening.

For example, the top 5 percent of U.S. households now control $32 trillion in assets, against $7 trillion for everyone else, according to “The Annual Survey of Affluence & Wealth in America.” The survey was produced by American Express Publishing Corp. and the Harrison Group marketing and consulting firm, and was unveiled during the conference. This same 5 percent of the population accounts for 35 percent of U.S. consumption—and the concentration of wealth is increasing. “We have entered an area where a milliondollar income isn’t very rare,” said Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group, who presented the survey results to attendees.

As the rich get richer, the profile of wealthy Americans is changing. Nearly 80 percent of households with an annual discretionary income of at least $125,000 come from the middle class, Taylor said. Nearly 70 percent of the affluent have had their wealth for less than 15 years. They’re climbing to the top of the income pyramid through hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, often netting more than $60,000 per month in disposable income, according to the survey. Overall, 92 percent of America’s wealthy earned their wealth while just 8 percent inherited it. “They are far more likely to make wealth through their own business,” Taylor said. “Entrepreneurship is the No. 1 occupation.”

In addition, these new affluent consumers are younger. “There is a dramatic increase of power and wealth generation of younger people,” Taylor said.

Christopher Wolf, managing director, chief investment officer of Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group, said the business environment has been ideal for these younger entrepreneurs to flourish—particularly those business owners who have made their wealth through technology. “Most of the wealth in the United States is focused on business ownership,” he said. “Productivity is up and costs are down, which is really a driver in this economy. If you’re a business owner, you’re making a lot of money.”

He added, “The numbers and the fundamentals are really good in the U.S.”

These new wealthy Americans are technophiles, Taylor said. In addition to using technology to gain business success, they use it to manage and enhance their lives. Television consumption is being controlled and is on the verge of being curtailed, according to the survey. More than half of these consumers own a DVR and are filtering at least half of their television viewing. These households spend 10.1 hours per week on the Internet and 10 hours per week watching TV. “Eighty percent attribute their success to technological omnipotence,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of a requirement to have and use the Internet.”

Some speakers at the summit said that luxury brands in general have been missing opportunities to use technology to get closer to these new customers. “Technology has passed us by,” said Guy Salter, deputy chairman of The Walpole Group, a London-based luxury industry trade organization. “We use it successfully in making things more efficient, but it hasn’t been used to bring us closer to the customer. … Blue-chip luxury brands started as technological innovators. It has been primarily forgotten that we have traditionally and historically been customizable and personable.”

The new wealthy consumers are not only bringing new money to spend on luxury goods and services but also bringing with them new ideas and values pertaining to the luxury experience. This upscale consumer, called the “logic shopper” in the survey, carries a “middle-class mentality.” This shopper uses diligence to save money and is more likely to comparison shop and browse Web sites, often saving as much as 50 percent for their products, Taylor said.

They differ from the traditional consumer of luxury goods, described in the survey as the “passion shopper,” who account for 40 percent of luxury shoppers, Taylor said. They love the elegance of luxury environments and are willing to pay a premium for the experience. Logic shoppers have had their wealth for a shorter period and didn’t grow up surrounded by the goods and services they can now afford.

“As we examine the changing composition of the growing class of affluent consumers, it is important for us, as luxury goods marketers, to fully understand how the values of this new American aristocracy influence its members’ purchasing behavior,” said Ed Kelly, president and chief executive officer of American Express Publishing. “By embracing this mind-set, we’ll be better able to serve the needs and desires of this consumer.”

The status and privilege conferred by luxury goods has largely been replaced by a “wow” factor derived from the fundamental virtues of authenticity, quality, craftsmanship, and design, Taylor said. Luxury brands, he added, need to be anchored in these attributes. “What we’re seeing is a two-tiered luxury market,” Taylor told the audience. “There will always be upscale consumers who enjoy the traditional shopping experience. However, our research shows that the new American aristocracy is stretching their dollars through comparative shopping. This illustrates the larger trend about this growing class—their values and behavior around their money are a complete 180 degrees from the traditional wealthy stereotype.”

After accumulating wealth, many of these individuals find it challenging to maintain their friendships and personal networks, according to the survey. They feel middle class at heart, and many don’t yet feel comfortable with their wealth. There’s a learning process associated with accumulated wealth. It comes with a significant degree of anxiety and a recognized need for understanding the “rules” of having wealth.

Salter said consumers don’t see themselves in many of the luxury brands today. He said the strategies of the past, such as the creation of retail “temples” and big advertising campaigns to impress people with the power of their brand, are becoming a more difficult sell. “The advertising is superficial,” he said. “The stores are there to impress, not engage. … We need to think of customers as people, not disciples. … We have to love and respect our consumers.”

Service is one aspect that has a strong impact on how consumers view luxury brands, said Craig Dickmann, boutique director for Cartier in Palm Beach. “The way to differentiate yourself is through service,” he said. “Never prejudge. Offer them opportunities. Invite them into the Cartier family. It’s about discovery and providing them with the right situation.”

James Little, chief concierge for The Peninsula Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, Calif., believes it’s important that his clients fully understand and use the hotel’s concierge service. “A lot of my job is about empathy and keeping a focus on what my customer wants,” he said. “To help them see the opportunities they have to enjoy a better quality of life.”

The wealthy, as a whole, are generous when it comes to giving back, according to the survey. The more affluent they are, the more they give to charities. In the next 20 years, wealthy Americans will give $6 trillion to various causes.

They are also more aware of their impact on the planet and are willing to patronize companies that make ecologically sound products and contribute to worthy causes. “Green is hot and will be part of the luxury market for years to come,” said Richard David Story, editor-in-chief of Departures magazine.

Wealthy consumers expect companies and their products to have a positive impact on the planet and on the less fortunate. And they want these companies to communicate the importance of doing good deeds. “It’s about leadership and responsibility,” said Christopher Sanderson, creative director of The Future Laboratory.

So while the ranks of the wealthy have never been so large and flush with money, the challenges for those who provide luxury goods and services have never been greater. These new consumers want their products and services to be well crafted, well designed, and authentic. They also want to be respected and engaged by those who provide luxury services. And they expect the companies they deal with to be good stewards of the planet.

“The world of luxury is a brand new world and a brave new world,” Taylor said. “This is a character-based business. It’s not for fools.”