Barneys becomes latest recession victim

According to The Wall Street Journal, luxury clothier Barneys New York is planning to close two of its department stores. The Journal attributes this to a decline in upper-class spending, but the truth may be a little more complicated.

Barneys, like many other high-end retailers that have become prominent since the 1980s, primarily targets the über wealthy who can afford to regularly spend $160 on a tie, $60 on a T-shirt, or $255 on a pair of jeans. On the surface, this marketing plan has a great deal of merit; after all, the top one percent of the country is full of consistent consumers who are somewhat immune to recessions. Moreover, the basic trend of the past few years, when Barneys has really exploded, has been toward massive, consistent economic growth. Under these circumstances, it would seem that Barneys could look ahead to a bright, lucrative future.

In many ways, Barneys' economic plan has not really failed. The top one percent is still spending large amounts of money in luxe, high-end stores. The trouble is that -- Reagan-era rhetoric aside -- they are not, and never were, the motivating force that propelled the economy. Despite the best attempts of the insanely wealthy, the real engine of economic growth is the middle class, which is both much larger and much broader in its purchasing profile. While it buys from low-end retailers, the middle class also indulges in aspirational purchasing, pouring money into high-end stores like Barney's, Neiman, and Saks.

Unfortunately, unlike the top one percent, the middle class is highly subject to the vagaries of the economy. Their splurge purchases, which provide a significant amount of Barneys' yearly revenue, are much less likely to occur when they are worried about losing their jobs or making their rent.

The effect of middle-class purchasing on Barneys becomes particularly clear when one considers that the first store on the chopping block is located at the Shoppes at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. Although analysts complain that the mall is confusing and suggest that surrounding stores are cannibalizing Barneys' sales, it's worth noting that the median income in Las Vegas is just over $50,000, which is well out of the range of the store's target demographic. This suggests that the majority of Barneys clientele in Las Vegas is either aspirational or comprised of wealthy visitors.

While some of Las Vegas tourism comes from the top one percent, the city has long positioned itself as a middle-class mecca, offering the dream of instant wealth to people who regularly slog through a 9-5 workday. In this context, it seems likely that, even among Barneys' Las Vegas tourist customers, most are aspirational purchasers. Unfortunately, with tourism down and middle-class wallets locked tight, the river of dollars flowing into Barneys has slowed to a trickle.

The central conceit of "trickle-down" economics was that money flowed from the upper class, watering all segments of the economy. However, as the Las Vegas Barneys outlet suggests, the real trickling of capital in the economy may have always been sideways or even upward.

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