Originally created 12/30/98

Gold Coast residents trading up when it comes to Christmas returns

WESTPORT, Conn. -- At Albe Furs, they're not too worried about after-Christmas returns. In fact, like many other upscale retailers, the post-Christmas period has turned into a time of happy returns.

Along Connecticut's Gold Coast, not many customers are asking for refunds, and those who do bring back merchandise usually end up spending more.

At Albe, a customer called on his cellular phone Christmas Eve looking for a red fox coat for his wife. The day after Christmas, his wife returned the fox, but bought a mink -- bringing the purchase price up from $2,500 to $4,500.

"It's not a refrigerator -- it's a luxury item," said Leon Skolnik, vice president of the Westport fur store. "If someone is in a position to buy a $5,000 sable coat, they're probably not going to return it."

Cindy Habighorst returned a pair of designer earrings Monday, but then ordered another pair. Mitchells, an upscale, family-owned department store in Westport, did not lose any money on the swap of Lisa Jenks earrings, which range from $130 to $400 per pair.

"My husband bought clip earrings and I have pierced ears," said Habighorst. "They killed my ears. It was like acupuncture."

At David Harvey Jewelers in Norwalk, there have been a handful of exchanges, but most of them have traded up.

"When it comes to jewelry, it's usually, on average, an upgrade," said store president Jeffrey Roseman.

Retail consultant Kurt Barnard said luxury retailers traditionally have a lower return rate after the holidays because buyers usually think more carefully about high-end purchases.

"Very few people buy a diamond necklace for $20,000 and suddenly decide they don't want it," Barnard said.

Barnard said that when people do bring back high-priced gifts, they often exchange them for something else without checking the price tag. For people who receive such luxury gifts, price is not a big consideration, he said.

"You don't really care how much it costs. Whether it's $10,000 or $9,250 -- it doesn't really matter to you," said Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report in Upper Montclair, N.J.

At Simon Pearce, a handblown glass and furnishings store in Greenwich where wine glasses cost from $38 to $60 each, sales clerks had handled only a few returns by Monday afternoon. Most people who came in to make exchanges have ended up spending more than the value of their original gift, said manager Kelly Whitney.

"A lot of people who buy here are adding to their collections. They already have eight of our wine glasses and they ask for two more for Christmas. A lot of people buy off registries. It's not like a shirt that doesn't fit," Whitney said.

While mainstream retailers are reporting a lackluster holiday sales season, upscale retailers in Connecticut's wealthy suburbs were reporting booming sales.

At Albe Furs, holiday sales are up 40 percent over last year, said George Lotkin, vice president of finance. At David Harvey Jewelers, the overall holiday sales increase is expected to be about 20 percent.

Even the local Lexus dealer was happy, although car dealers generally don't enjoy the kind of holiday sales boom most retailers do.

Lexus of Greenwich sold two cars specifically as Christmas gifts this year, said Jay Coppola, general sales manager.

Coppola isn't concerned about any post-holiday returns.

"No one has ever returned one," he said.


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