Saks says visa rules dent U.S. luxury sales

NEW YORK Tue May 24, 2011 5:05pm EDT

The outside of the Saks Fifth Avenue store is seen in New York October 8, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The outside of the Saks Fifth Avenue store is seen in New York October 8, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City may be perceived as the capital of the world, and to make it the true shopping mecca, one luxury executive wants the U.S. government to make it easier for foreign visitors to come and spend.

Saks Inc SKS.N Chief Executive Steve Sadove said that his chain of department stores is at a disadvantage compared with its European counterparts because of tough tourist visa rules that are keeping out many travelers with voracious appetites for designer gowns, $8,000 handbags and Armani suits.

International tourism makes up from 5 to 10 percent of Saks' total sales, but is even more important to its flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, which accounts for one-fifth of sales.

"If you go to Paris, to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, you go to London, you go to Harrod's, the Asian tourists, the Brazilian tourists, the Russian tourists are very brand-conscious, very luxury-focused," Sadove said at the Reuters Global Luxury and Fashion Summit.

Western Europeans and Canadians get visa waivers when they visit as tourists, but citizens of most countries need visas, a process that can be expensive and take weeks.

Saks operates 46 full-service department stores and 57 factory outlets. In its first quarter, it reported a 10.2 percent sales gain at its stores open for at least a year.

But that could be higher if the United States eased its rules for Chinese, Russian and Brazilian tourists, Sadove said.

"They would clearly love to see the U.S. cities as much as some of the European cities," he said.

Chinese consumers are expected to fuel global luxury spending and account for about 25 percent in worldwide sales within 10 or 15 years, and spend much of that abroad.

Last year, they spent a total of $3.8 billion in the United States, up 38 percent from a year earlier, according to the U.S. State Department.

Sadove said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was sympathetic and that Saks, along with other retailers, has lobbied the White House and U.S. State Department through the National Retail Federation, an industry group.

While Sadove said that tourism is not a decisive factor to his business' success, a more welcoming visa system could help sales by a few percentage points.

"The Chinese love brands, and they travel, too," he said.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba, editing by Matthew Lewis)