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Down, Not Out : Beverly Hills Flashes Its Own Version of a Blue Light Special

March 09, 1994|DAVID W. MYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene: The interior of designer Ralph Lauren's clothing store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Actor Tom Selleck takes only a brief look at the piles of $300 sweaters and $200 shirts on sale, but stops in front of the socks marked down almost 50%.

Of course, there are no 99-cent bargains in this world-famous city, long a symbol of Southern California's affluence. But socks at $16.20 a pair are something Selleck simply can't ignore.

"It'd be un-American to pass up socks that are on sale," he says, flashing his trademark dimpled grin as he hands about half a dozen pairs to a sales clerk.

This is no movie. Selleck--who once made Forbes' list of the world's richest entertainers by earning an estimated $22 million--is merely bargain hunting, Beverly Hills style.

With Southern California only slowly emerging from recession and the wealthy still reluctant to dig too deeply into their designer wallets, the Chamber of Commerce set in the 90210 ZIP code area is busy mapping out ways to find new customers while offering better values to old ones who are not nearly as affluent as they used to be.

Most merchants say the need to expand their customer base is clear. Retail sales in Beverly Hills have dropped nearly 20% from their peak in 1990. Homes in the area are selling for about half what they were five years ago.

Faced with lower revenues because of a shrinking commercial base, the city had to balance its books last year by resorting to such distasteful measures as employee layoffs and a $1.2-million hike in garbage pickup fees.

According to Bill Boyd, executive vice president of the chamber, it is now clear that the business district can no longer thrive by catering solely to the richest of the rich.

"We're not panicking," Boyd said, "but we obviously need to reach out to a wider group of people if we want to see business grow. There is a finite number of truly rich people in the world."

While visitors to Beverly Hills these days certainly won't hear the sound of "Attention, Kmart shoppers," they will see how much shopping in the city has changed if they look closely enough.

Leather handbags, for example, now start at $95 and share shelf space with the $4,000 crocodile purses in the store owned by Fred Hayman, founder of the pricey Giorgio line of fragrances and the man who outfits television stars Jay Leno and Pat Sajak.

"We also offer men's suits for as little as $650," Hayman said. "A few years ago, we had nothing under $1,000."

At the Bowles/Sorokko Galleries a block away, $4,000 paintings by newcomers with names such as Watt and Medvedev hang near $250,000 originals by Picasso and Neiman.

Even Tiffany & Co.--whose spacious store stands like a granite guard dog at the southern end of the Rodeo Drive shopping strip--recently introduced a new line of key chains and other stainless steel accessories selling for as little as $100.

"Wealthy people have been cutting back on their spending," said Mark Aaron, a Tiffany spokesman, "but they just don't do it the same way that most consumers do."

Before the recession, Sharper Image on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard could barely keep its $1,000 electric shavers in stock and once offered a $64,000 classic Corvette for that special person seeking "the ultimate toy."

Now customers appear more practical and price-conscious. Among the store's best-selling items during Christmas were a $39 motorized tie rack and a $150 toothbrush that improves oral hygiene by emitting sonar sound waves.

"A toothbrush is certainly a practical item, even if it is priced at $150," said Sydney Klavett, a Sharper Image spokesman.

Sales of new cars are still down from their pre-recession levels at Rolls-Royce of Beverly Hills, where a 1994 Corniche convertible retails for $269,000. But the company's sales of used--er, "pre-owned"--autos jumped sharply last year, as clients sought older models at lower prices.

"Many customers are looking to spend between $60,000 and $100,000, which can buy them a new Lexus or a pre-owned Rolls-Royce," said David Murphy, the dealership's manager. "We think that we're the better buy."

For budget-conscious buyers who'd like sportier wheels, Murphy suggests the new Lotus Esprit in his showroom that goes for only $71,000.

Meanwhile, many restaurateurs have revamped their menus and lowered prices to attract new diners and their slimmer wallets. Some that didn't--including Bice, which was among the priciest and trendiest Beverly Hills eateries in the high-flying '80s--have been forced to close their doors in the toned-down '90s.

Restaurants that have long offered more affordable fare barely noticed the recession. "People in Beverly Hills still want to eat out, but they seem a little more reluctant to spend $50 or $100 to do it," said Mark Stamper, manager of Cafe Rodeo, where entrees start at about $12.

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