Last updated: January 14, 2009 7:06 pm

Breaking at Tiffany’s

The warning for Tiffany did not come from any analyst report or financial barometer but rather an unadorned shopping bag. When disgraced Lehman head Dick Fuld’s wife reportedly asked for a plain brown wrapper from Hermès instead of the instantly recognisable orange one this autumn, she gave a good indication of how tough this downturn would be for purveyors of luxury goods.

The high-end jeweller on Wednesday reported that sales in the US fell by 30 per cent versus a year earlier during the crucial holiday season and by even more when new store openings are stripped out. By contrast, it suffered only a mild pullback in 2001, a year that not only saw a recession but a terrorist attack in its largest market, New York City. In normal recessions, the truly rich can usually be counted upon to continue spending since they still have plenty of excess cash, while those on the cusp of wealth, or trying to appear that way, also do their best to keep the fancy shop tills ringing.

Two things have changed this time. First, the ranks of the wealthy have swelled courtesy of (the now deflating) bubbles in property and hedge funds. Many of these parvenus face setbacks sharp enough to deter expensive jewellery purchases. Second, as Ms Fuld demonstrated, conspicuous consumption is suddenly unfashionable, even reprehensible.

Over the past decade, Tiffany expanded as steadily as the ranks of the rich, nearly doubling its worldwide shops to 206. To its credit, this has not come with a big rise in leverage. There may be more pain ahead though if its push into Asia, where it now has more shops than the US, sees a sharper sales drop than the recently reported 2 per cent.

Tiffany has protected both its brand and balance sheet enough to survive the latest storm. Bromides about the resilience of luxury goods in downturns, however, may not.

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