Darden Restaurants is coming up with new ways to cater to its richest clientele by keeping detailed notes on its top 10,000 customers' food and wine preferences at Capital Grille.
Walt Disney Co. is forging ahead with plans to build lavish vacation homes priced between $1.5 million and $8 million at Walt Disney World.
Yes, Virginia, there is still such a thing as the confident, affluent consumer.
But it remains to be seen if the Christmas-in-July some companies are wishing for will materialize. While affluent consumers have helped to drive spending and some economic recovery, they remain precariously tied to the whims of the markets.
And Tuesday's slide to the lowest level of the year — the Dow dropped 268 points to close at 9,870 after consumer confidence tanked — could foretell a new unsteadiness in the footing of the rich.
Darden President and Chief Operating Officer Drew Madsen noted during an earnings call with analysts last week that wealthy consumers are closely aligned with the markets and big events such as the BP oil spill.
"I do believe the upscale, the luxury businesses are much more volatile to changes in what's going on in the macroeconomic environment, whether it's what's happening with the Dow or what's happening in the Gulf," he said.
But that hasn't stopped Darden and Disney from banking on affluent consumers keeping their mojo.
Darden executives are encouraged by the recent return of business travel and entertainment spending. Madsen said business at Capital Grille, the company's fine dining brand, has improved Monday through Thursday more than it has on the weekends.
The Orlando-based Fortune 500's strategy demonstrates the two-pronged approach many companies are taking to attract increasingly price-conscious customers while also finding new ways to indulge its wealthiest customers.
That means continuing to focus on promotions that emphasize price for its core brands Olive Garden and Red Lobster. At the same time, executives are surefooted in the planned expansions of Capital Grille and their second upscale brand Seasons 52.
Capital Grille executives are also enhancing a tool that allows them to track their best customers with hope of making their dining experience at the steakhouse consistent from city to city.
At Disney, the playbook appears to bear some similarities.
The company is pushing forward with its Golden Oak luxury home development complete with golf courses and a Four Seasons hotel, an especially dicey bet in this real estate climate.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Disney recently said it would offer monthly payment plans for buyers of its theme park annual passes, a move to make its gates accessible to people more susceptible to sticker shock.
It's yet another tactic that emphasizes the gap between the rich and the firmly planted middle class in the wake of the recession.
Consider: Shortly after the markets hit bottom last year, the optimism of wealthy households plummeted too, according to a consumer sentiment study by L.E.K. Consulting LLC. But as the S&P 500 Index tracked upward in the fall and continued rising this spring, affluent customers came back and are the only demographic to say they are spending more today than before the recession.
"A small minority of Americans is pulling us out of this recession," said L.E.K. Vice President Dan McKone. "Talk about the dichotomy of the haves and have-nots, one of the most important things for the have-nots is that the haves continue to consume."
Beth Kassab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun