Pity the poor store that traffics in high-end goods. In a fragile economy with ongoing layoffs, reformed consumers are embracing the virtues of thrift, and the upper echelons of the retail industry are taking it on the chin. Saks Incorporated, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue, reported that sales were down almost 20 percent in August, with losses of $54.5 million during the previous three months. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, declared $97.6 billion in third-quarter earnings this fiscal year, an increase of 7.5 percent over the same period in 2008.
Wal-Mart may be profiting from low prices, but luxury brands, which can only slash tags so far, must find other strategies to lure shoppers. Louis Vuitton, well aware that holding on to loyal customers is essential, delivered a must-see space when it found itself faced with temporary digs in Tokyo. But attracting new buyers is equally important, as demonstrated by CultureLabel.com, a one-stop online shop for goods from more than 60 of Britain’s major art-world institutions. The new firm Partners & Spade took advantage of a dearth of interesting Manhattan enterprises, many of which were shouldered out by chain stores in the strong economy of the past decade, to open a retail gallery. Though there is no one dominant approach or aesthetic, all the projects presented here—ranging from the ingeniously repurposed to the mouthwateringly surreal—are noteworthy contenders in the fight to maintain foot traffic and improve profit margins.