Jason Chow and Laurie Burkitt; WSJ  February 6, 2013

The Lunar New Year arrives Feb. 10, bringing with it a new animal: the snake. The holiday also ushers in a beast of a shopping season that this year is stretching from boutiques in Beijing to Beverly Hills.

Luxury brands are rolling out a menagerie of merchandise to capitalize on the holiday, which marks Asia’s biggest shopping season. And more Western brands are getting in on the Year of the Snake, pushing snake- and red-themed goods, from Vacheron Constantin’s $150,000 watch with an engraved snake etched onto its face to the serpentine, limited-edition Mercedes-Benz Smart Car, of which only 666 were made.

The 15-day holiday, also called Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, sees millions of vacationing Chinese head to the airport—and where they spend, they splurge. Snake-inspired products are popping up to greet them in U.S. and European cities, where international retailers are eager to attract shoppers from the world’s second-largest economy.

“Lunar New Year has become part of the annual cycle for brands,” says Torsten Stocker, who tracks retail trends in China as a partner at the consulting firm Monitor Group. “It’s a bit debatable about how much of this is actually Chinese and how much of it is Western thinking of ‘Let’s put a red dragon on it, and the Chinese will love it.’ But there’s certainly a market for it.”

The Lunar New Year traditionally sees families and friends feast and exchange gifts. In the past, these gifts would typically be a few crisp bank notes tucked in a red envelope (red is considered a lucky color). But China’s growing wealthy class is now more likely to splurge on more luxurious goods as gifts for others and themselves.

Yimmy Law has her own annual shopping routine. The 55-year-old Hong Kong legal consultant studies the window displays at local jewelry stores, searching for a pure-gold figurine of the zodiac animal that she will display in her living room and add to her growing collection.

“It’s just something we do every year to celebrate,” she says of her annual purchase.

Ms. Law expects to spend up to 60,000 Hong Kong dollars (roughly US$7,700) on her annual gold collection as well as other jewelry, liquor and food baskets for family and business associates.

“This is peak season for China,” says Bruno Lannes, a partner at consulting firm Bain & Co. Last year, sales of all goods in the country jumped 16% from the year before, according to the country’s Ministry of Commerce.

The shopping spills across borders: According to tax-refund service Global Blue, Chinese shoppers spend an average €11,000 ($14,940) on trips to Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong. Chinese shoppers last year became the largest group of luxury consumers in the world, overtaking Americans and Japanese for the first time in 2012, according to Bain.

Bergdorf Goodman, the upscale New York boutique, has prepared a Lunar New Year-themed window display, added Mandarin-speaking staff and will be handing out red envelopes to Chinese shoppers that include a store directory in Chinese and a ticket for a complimentary drink at its restaurant.

“We’ll see a spike,” says John Capizzi, general manager of the store. “We know they’re coming.”

Harrod’s in London is selling its own snake-emblazoned gold bullion bars, weighing from 5 to 100 grams that sell at $320 to $5,700. Last year was the first time the store offered gold bars, which were met with “strong demand,” according to a Harrod’s spokesman.

Last year, the Year of the Dragon, several European and American brands unveiled limited-edition, dragon-themed products to attract Chinese buyers. One of the more extravagant ones was Rolls-Royce’s “Year of the Dragon” Phantom car, priced at more than $1.3 million, which featured dragons embroidered in gold on the headrests, dragons painted on the wheelbases, and LED “Year of the Dragon 2012″ lights on the tread plates. It sold out within eight weeks.

Don’t look for a serpentine version this year. Rolls-Royce “takes the animal into consideration” as one of the reasons it won’t be producing a snake-themed car, a spokesman said.

Other companies are also grappling with marketing a zodiac animal that turns off some consumers.

“You see some brands call snakes ‘little dragons’ because it’s not as sexy an animal,” says Christine Lu, the chief executive at Affinity China, a high-end travel company that is organizing a 10-day luxury tour of California and Nevada for 50 Chinese vacationers. They will each pay 88,000 yuan ($14,150) for a trip that includes stops at Saks Fifth Avenue and Burberry in Beverly Hills.

Chow Tai Fook, a Hong Kong jeweler, says its zodiac-themed baubles sell well even in the less-glamorous years of the rat, pig and ox. Shoppers buy these items for their children, or themselves, based on their birth year.

Gucci is promoting the Lunar New Year with a collection of red accessories, such as a boxy tote with a heart-shaped leather charm, and personalized luggage identification tags with zodiac symbols.

Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, is offering a service for shoppers to monogram their luggage or baggage with a snake imprint. It has hired calligraphers in selected stores in China to ink fortuitous wishes for consumers to take home, along with custom commemorative paintings.

Wang Meng, a 27-year-old who works in marketing in Beijing, has bought zodiac-commemorative products in the past, such as a pink Prada wallet in 2011 that was part of a year-of-the-rabbit promotion. However, she says the bunny had nothing to do with the purchase.

“I never care about these animals,” she says. “It’s just the design that’s important.”

Upscale watchmakers often compete against each other with over-the-top designs this time of year. Piaget is promoting a $68,000 model with a cloisonné snake and a dial with 78 diamonds. In 2007, it put together a collection of 12 watches of all the zodiac animals, and sold a dragon watch last year.

The Year of the Snake is an easy year for jewelry brand Bulgari. The company has never produced Lunar New Year special editions before, but it has carried its Serpenti line since the 1960s. It relaunched the line last fall, adding new items such as a one-of-a-kind diamond-and-jade Serpenti necklace geared to the tastes of China’s wealthy. It’s priced at more than $400,000.

“The snake has always been part of our identity, so we’re fortunate,” says Francesco Trapani, president of watches and jewelry at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, MC.FR +1.46% the French luxury group that owns Bulgari. A giant illuminated snake adorns the exterior of Bulgari’s Fifth Avenue store in New York.

Whiskey and cognac companies see a spike in sales in Asia this time of year, as men buy bottles as gifts for colleagues and clients. Johnnie Walker promotes the holiday with gift packs in red packaging with a tumbler for impromptu toasts and bottles of Red Label and Blue Label whiskeys.

This year, it has unveiled a set of 12 Blue Label bottles, each decorated with a different zodiac animal etched with gold onto the glass. It has produced only 88 sets (8 is an auspicious number), each priced at $4,800 and only available at its members-only Shanghai clubhouse, Johnnie Walker Mansion. More than half of the sets were sold within two weeks of its January launch, the company says.

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