On Rodeo Drive, the economy's booming

Gas, food and mortgage costs? Not a worry for these shoppers.

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Steve Thorne, 54, watched approvingly as his girlfriend tried on a pair of boots at the Jimmy Choo boutique on Rodeo Drive last week.

"I can't complain," he said when I asked how the economy's been treating him. With sales of new cars down, Thorne said, his 600-employee replacement-parts business in Philadelphia has had a record year, and he's doing better than ever.

"Things are good," he said. "Absolutely."

Gas and grocery prices may be more than many working-class families can bear, home foreclosures may be soaring, but life is just fine at the loftiest heights of the economy.

At least that's the view from Beverly Hills, where I spent a recent afternoon popping into pricey boutiques and chatting with retailers and shoppers.

"Business has been crazy-great," gushed Kim Gregory, manager of the Christofle shop on Brighton Way, purveyor of silver flatware and other furnishings. "It's like Christmas in here."

Shortly before I arrived at her store, she said, a customer purchased $10,000 worth of knives, forks and spoons. Last month, sales were up 45% from a year earlier.

"Most of my clients have those black American Express cards, the ones made out of titanium," Gregory said. "They don't worry about their mortgages. They don't worry about recession. They just want to buy."

Across the road, Joshua Gosline, a salesman at the Cesare Paciotti shoe shop, said he sold $4,000 worth of footwear to a customer a few weeks ago (which at Cesare Paciotti means only five or six pairs).

"We have a steady clientele," he said. "The people we do business with aren't affected by the economy."

According to the consulting firm Bain & Co., North America accounted for a third of the world's $233 billion in luxury-goods sales last year.

Not all those purchases were made by well-to-do Americans and Canadians, of course. Retailers in Beverly Hills said they were seeing a lot of business from European travelers with pockets full of super-strong euros, as well as visitors from Saudi Arabia flush with record-high oil profits.

"Saudi princesses," confided a saleswoman at one Rodeo Drive clothing store she didn't want named. "That's who's doing all the buying."

In fact, each store I visited had a different take on the prosperity washing over the area. Some credited local customers with remaining loyal to particular brands. Others said they were being kept afloat by visitors from abroad.

Bottom line: There's plenty of money to go around.

"In the context of the challenges the nation is facing, Beverly Hills is faring very, very well," said Dan Walsh, president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "Demand for high-end luxury remains strong."

David Winter, president of the Luxury Marketing Council of Southern California, echoed this sentiment.

"The upper class, those who have a liquid net worth above $1 million, are basically immune to economic fluctuations," he said.

"Let's say you have a net worth of $100 million and you lose half that amount. You'd still have a net worth of $50 million. And you'd still go shopping."

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