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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wall Street bonuses spur lavish spending on gifts

By Heather Burke
Bloomberg News Service

Hammacher Schlemmer showcases Zoltar, the classic animatronic fortune teller found in arcades and similar to the one in the Tom Hanks movie, "Big." So far, the company has sold nine of the seers, for $10,000 each.

Hammacher Schlemmer

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NEW YORK One New York wife is getting a $50,000-plus diamond ring thanks to hubby's Wall Street bonus. An executive is giving $1 million in private jet time, or 150 hours, so his family won't have to fly commercial. And plenty of $7,000 mink coats and $20,000 necklaces are being boxed up, too.

"I haven't seen such excess displays of wealth and extravagance during the holidays since the 1980s," said Samantha von Sperling, a New York-based image consultant and personal shopper. "This is the most prosperous, most lavish, most extravagant season I've ever seen."

Expensive gifts are flying off the shelves as securities firms prepare to award bonuses to workers in New York City that State Comptroller Alan Hevesi said will total a record $23.9 billion. That's up 17 percent from last year's $20.5 billion, he said in a forecast released this week.

The resulting New York splurge is part of a national trend that may push up November and December sales as much as 6 percent at U.S. luxury stores open at least a year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's twice the gain from last year's holiday shopping season that the New York-based trade group expects for all retailers.

For bankers, brokers, traders and other clients too busy making money to spend it themselves, von Sperling is happy to help for a fee starting at $250 an hour. While most clients spend $5,000 to $20,000 on gifts, some shell out as much as $250,000, she said.

Furs and jewelry are popular gifts for Wall Street wives and girlfriends, and customers typically want something exclusive, von Sperling said. The $50,000-plus ring soon to adorn that Wall Street wife's hand features two canary diamonds, yellow stones that are among the rarest available, she said.

For a cosmetic dentist's girlfriend and his three daughters, von Sperling selected $5,000 of jewelry by Coco Raynes, a designer who puts out one collection a year and doesn't advertise, she said.

Tiffany & Co., the world's second-largest luxury jeweler, last month boosted its annual profit forecast, crediting holiday demand for merchandise such as $20,000 rings and necklaces in the store's signature blue boxes.

Luxury consumers also are spending more on travel, dining and beauty services this year, because they often have all the material things they need, said Pam Danziger, founder of Unity Marketing Inc., a Stevens, Pennsylvania-based firm that tracks spending among the wealthy. Popular presents include gift certificates for fancy restaurants and spa days, she said.

CHARTER TO AMALFI COAST

One New York real estate magnate wants a charter for June or July off Italy's Amalfi Coast for as many as a dozen of his family and friends, said Jeffrey Beneville, head of business development at Camper & Nicholsons International, a Monaco-based yachting company. Cost: about $175,000 a week just for the vessel and crew.

"The extremely high-end luxury product is in incredibly high demand," he said in New York.

Marquis Jet Partners Inc. has sold more than 100 jet gift cards in the past month. That's 50 percent more than last year, said Randy Brandoff, vice president. Marquis sells 25-hour chunks of flying time on NetJets Inc., the Woodbridge, New Jersey-based operator of private planes owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

One Wall Street executive bought six $185,000 jet gift cards for his wife and five children, Brandoff said.

New York is the biggest market for Signature Days LLC, which books reservations for everything from wine tastings to scuba-diving lessons, said Chris Widdess, vice president.

The Chicago-based company expects this year's revenue to surge tenfold to as much as $4 million, Widdess said. New Yorkers account for 8 percent to 10 percent of sales, he said.

MAKEOVERS POPULAR

Von Sperling said she gets three calls a day for makeovers, spurred by the popularity of reality-television shows. Hair, makeup and a new wardrobe may cost $10,000 to $20,000 in New York, she says.

Andrew Kornstein, a plastic surgeon with a Fifth Avenue practice, said he gets about 20 requests a year for plastic surgery or Botox anti-wrinkle treatments as gifts. One woman told her husband to stop giving her clothing and jewels. She's getting a $20,000 face lift, Kornstein said.

"If plastic surgery procedures are the meat, the Botox and other injectable treatments are like the marinade or the sauce," Kornstein said.

Some fabled New York retailers are prospering.

Hammacher Schlemmer, the 158-year-old purveyor of gifts such as $13,000 hand-carved rocking horses, this year is offering Zoltar fortune-telling machines similar to the one in the Tom Hanks movie "Big." So far it has sold nine of the $10,000, 6.5-foot robotic seers, said manager Linda Drummond. Zoltar is the gift of choice for several hedge funds, she said.

New Yorkers who stop by the company's East 57th Street store often have a sales associate help them jot down a gift list, spending thousands of dollars "without batting an eyelash," Drummond said.

"If you have everything you need, you can afford to buy anything you want," she said.