Why retail hopes for Sex and the City won't pay off.

Commentary about business and finance.
May 29 2008 1:40 PM

Sex and the Cash Register

Retailers hope to piggyback on the Sex and the City movie, but it won't work.

Also in Slate: Dana Stevens thought the movie tries to have its Cinderella-themed cake of romantic fulfillment and eat it, too, and Julia Turner argued that the film's sartorial priorities were out of whack.

Sex and the City. Click image to expand.
Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, and Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City

"Find Your Inner Carrie," urges the sign in the window of Plaza Too, an elite accessories boutique on Hudson Street in Manhattan. Evidently you can unleash this spirit by buying a $298 Beirn "Jenna Hobo" handbag inside the shop, conveniently located across the street from a stop on the popular Sex and the City bus tour in New York City.

A shameless, derivative promotion? Of course, but you can't blame Plaza Too for trying to tap into the glitzy consumption that always defined HBO's series Sex and the City. After all, SATC was renowned for bringing product placement to giddy new heights, enticing countless women to gulp down saccharine cosmopolitans and stuff their closets with Manolo Blahnik shoes. If Carrie Bradshaw wore it, retailers bought it, and consumers consumed it—in spades.

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Will SATC the movie have the same therapeutic effect for America's ailing retailers? Unlikely. But it won't be for lack of trying. If SATC the series was promotions-heavy, SATC the movie is positively heaving. The film's opening voice-over says it all: New York women crave "the two Ls: labels and love." Costumed by flamboyant designer Patricia Field, the film's over-the-top wardrobe made even Women's Wear Daily queasy.

"They went for visual overload," said a WWD reviewer. "Chanel, Prada, Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood … [It was] intense." Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie Bradshaw, has a reported 81 costume changes, which included millions of dollars of jewelry.

Retailers on all levels are hoping this designer parade will help them revive flat-lining sales. From New York to Dallas to Seattle, Sex and the City-inspired clothing and (of course) shoe sales, spa treatments, and sweepstakes are popping up like desperate little daisies. Burberry is quick to point out that Parker wore a Burberry Prorsum coat in the film; Vogue urges you to subscribe to the magazine and win a chance to "Dress like the Women from Sex and the City," courtesy a $3,700 shopping spree at Neiman Marcus.

"Tons of pitches have been coming in," says Jeralyn Gerba, New York City editor of trends sourcing Web site Daily Candy. "Sex and the City-themed charm bracelets. Sex and the City-themed scavenger hunts. Sex and the City hotel promotions."

Of course, some people stand to make a great deal of money from SATC the movie; advance ticket sales alone predict a blockbuster for New Line Cinema, a division of Time Warner that is now being consolidated into Warner Bros. Yet the prognosis for SATC-inspired spending on the luxury goodies showcased in the movie is grim.

While the film's characters seem to have spent the last four years gorging themselves on designer wares, much of the rest of the nation has been forced to slim down. According to Pam Danziger, a consumer-insights expert at Unity Marketing, luxury consumer confidence hit an all-time low in the first quarter of 2008.

"The movie might sell magazines, but probably not clothes," says Danziger. She points out that not only are consumers cash poor at present, but the price of high-end designer goods has skyrocketed becaues of the decline of the dollar against the euro and luxury companies' strategies to move upmarket.

"A few years ago, you could buy a pair of Manolos for $400, and today they're $800 or even $1,000," she says. "That price inflation hits hard at this time."

In fact, it virtually excludes most aspirational consumers from buying a sliver of the Bradshaw dream, downgrading materialistic participation in SATC to mere voyeurism. And the issue's not just diminished resources of would-be customers. In the fashion world, a quieter aesthetic has replaced the ostentation peddled by the Carrie Bradshaw franchise. Today's chic relies on simplicity, not tutu skirts. For several seasons, designers and magazine editors have eschewed the label-heavy exhibitionism embodied by SATC at its zenith of cultural relevance; the overpowering bling-bling aesthetic of the film almost makes it feel like a time capsule.

"There's definitely been a move away from logo bags and head-to-toe looks off the runway," says Elisa Lipsky-Karasz, an editor at W magazine. "To dress that way today is seen as a faux pas."

Moreover, the fashion industry itself has changed dramatically since the series' launch 10 years ago. The sweeping proliferation of outlets such as H&M, which can replicate runway looks within weeks at a fraction of the price of the designer version, further reduces the allure of throwing rent money on an "it" handbag or dress. Ironically, Sarah Jessica Parker herself has become the public face of this phenomenon; last year, she launched Bitten, a clothing line for discount retailers Steve & Barry's in which all items sell for $20 or less.

Still, luxury retailers may get a small, somewhat surprising boost from the movie. As the owner of one Greenwich Village luxury accessories boutique confesses, not many New Yorkers are shopping in his store these days anyway, but thanks to the anemic dollar, his European customers are flush with cash and "obsessed with Sex and the City."

Maybe Carrie should have stayed in Paris after all.

Lesley M.M. Blume is an author and journalist based in New York City.

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