Jury Out on NY Tourist Biz

Jury Out on NY Tourist Biz
Bergdorf Goodman hosted a fashion show for Chinese visitors

NEW YORK — Tourism in the Big Apple may be surging, but New York retailers are mixed about how the influx of out-of-towners has helped boost sales.

According to NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization, New York had 10.1 million international visitors in 2011, a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Although the city garnered more overseas travelers than Los Angeles and Miami combined, store owners said their impact has been only marginal.

“We’ve had more tourists come into the store, but we didn’t see an increase in business because of them,” said Chuckies owner Richie Erani. “They aren’t really a group that we target or rely upon.”

Erani added that his boutiques do have a few regular international shoppers from countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Israel who are more impulsive to make a purchase while they’re in town. Hot brands among that small group of consumers include YSL and Lanvin.

“Regular customers who already live around the neighborhood like to mull over their purchases and sometimes will go back to see if they can find it cheaper online,” Erani said. “Some of these out-of-towners are more serious about buying and are afraid of losing something when they see it.”

Roz Viemeister, owner of Shoofly, said she has also noticed a surge in tourist traffic at her shop, which is located near the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

As the bulk of her offerings are European brands, the boutique owner has had a difficult time selling to international shoppers.

“They’re not buying shoes as much, but they are buying accessories that are made in America,” Viemeister said. “They come in to buy something more immediate, such as a hat for their kids because they didn’t pack appropriately.”

American heritage brands have been popular among European visitors at Soula in Brooklyn, N.Y. “They’re looking for iconic American brands like Converse, Timberland and Sorel,” said owner Rick Lee. “They’re pretty focused shoppers who know exactly what they’re looking for. If they don’t see it, they’re out.”

Lee added that he’s seen a decline in sales from European travelers at his two New York stores over the past year. The retailer suspects it was caused by the erratic value of the euro, which hit a 16-month low versus the U.S. dollar earlier this month.

“We’re definitely getting the tourists, but they’re not buying as much as they have in the past,” Lee said.

But not all retailers are disregarding the boost in international shoppers. French Sole Comfort owner Randy Ochart estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of his customers last year were tourists, with the heaviest influx coming during the summer months.

While he’s concerned as well about how the fluctuating euro will affect European visitors, Ochart said he’s had a spike in travelers from China and Brazil.

“We’re seeing more Chinese tourists than ever,” he said. “They’ve got the bucks, so it makes sense.”

To accommodate the increase in international shoppers, Ochart employed several bilingual sales associates who are fluent in languages such as Mandarin, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Russian and French.

And an even bigger boost in Chinese and Brazilian tourists may be on the horizon. Last month, President Obama signed an executive order to increase the visa processing for visitors from those countries by 40 percent.

Alison Paul, vice chairman of U.S. retail at Deloitte, said expedited processing for the Chinese will bode well for retailers in tourist locations.

“It’s positive news because those countries have a real burgeoning, growing middle class,” she said. “There’s an excitement about consumerism and having luxury goods, which didn’t exist a generation or two before.”

Paul added that shoppers from foreign countries are already predisposed to spending while they’re on vacation, which makes them unfazed by high prices.

“A lot of times U.S. stores are bigger and brighter, particularly in New York,” Paul said. “Retailers are really able to showcase product but also their beautiful architecture and merchandising. It’s not just a shopping experience; it’s also a whole entertainment experience.”

NYC & Company said the forecast for 2012 is also looking bright. The city, which is targeting a 2.5 percent increase in visitors this year, already got a major lift during last week’s New York Giants ticker-tape parade, which celebrated the team’s victory in the Super Bowl.

The event, which drew 500,000 to 1 million people (final numbers haven’t been released), could help the city rack up as much as $38 million in revenues.