Ana Ligia Paladino traveled 5,000 miles from her home in southernmost Brazil last month to jostle for Black Friday bargains at Macy's in New York City. Waiting in line by 5 a.m., she soon notched her first buys in a planned 10-day shopping spree.
"It was a bagunça!" she recalled, using a Brazilian expression that means both mess and mayhem to describe the scene.
Brazilian shoppers are taking the U.S. by storm this holiday season, a welcome boost for U.S. retailers facing a sluggish economy. Armed with a strong currency, easier access to credit and abundant enthusiasm for shopping, Brazilians have quietly ousted richer nations, such as the U.K., as the biggest overseas spenders in key U.S. markets like New York City and Florida.
Some 700,000 Brazilians will visit New York City this year, more than twice the 2009 figure. That's fewer than the British and Canadian totals. But Brazilians still outspend all other countries in the city, including Canada, the U.K. and Italy, New York officials say. In 2010, Brazilian visitors spent a total of $1.63 billion in New York City, topping the $1.42 billion spent by travelers from the U.K., the $1.27 billion spent by Canadians and the $1.1 billion spent by Italians, according to the NYC & Co., the city's tourism board.
Meanwhile, Brazilians became Florida's most lucrative overseas shopper after Canadians by spending $1 billion in the first six months of the year, a 61% increase over last year and more than twice the second biggest spenders, the U.K.
"Brazilian shoppers are at the top of every retailer's list right now, and if not, they are at the top of their wish lists," said Fred Dixon, the senior vice president for tourism development at NYC & Co. The organization is lobbying Congress to speed the visa process for Brazilians, and eventually waive it all together, in hopes Brazilian spending will rise further.
Brazil isn't the only emerging market nation in U.S. retailers' sights. The number of Chinese visitors to the U.S. has quadrupled since 2003 to more than 800,000. Though that's still relatively few, considering the population of China, studies show that individual spending by Chinese visitors outpaces that of many Europeans.
The new global clout of the Brazilian shopper reflects the rise of Latin America's biggest economy, even as the U.S and Europe remain mired in economic gloom. A decade of currency stability and soaring commodity prices helped lift millions from poverty in the resource-rich nation. For many in Brazil's newly minted middle class, a U.S. shopping spree is an important rite of passage.
But the big reason Brazilians shop in the U.S. is because everything from Apple Inc. iPads to polo shirts cost half what they do back in Brazil. With high taxes, rising inflation and an overvalued currency, Brazil's relatively closed economy has become an expensive place to make or buy goods—not necessarily a good thing for long-term growth. Brazilians save so much buying in the U.S. rather than in Brazil that it often covers their U.S. airfare and hotel bills.
"You can find it all in Brazil, but at a much higher price," said Hélida Geber, a Brazilian on her first trip to the New York area. She was taking a breather from buying cosmetics, clothes and "gifts for everybody," including Apple iPods, handbags and watches at the Jersey Gardens mall in Elizabeth, N.J.
Located just a few minutes from Newark Airport, Jersey Gardens was described as the place "many visit even before checking in at their hotels" in an 84-page New York/Miami shopping guide that came free with a recent edition of Veja, a top Brazilian newsweekly.
Other shopping meccas include Sawgrass Mills outlet mall in Sunrise, Fla., which now features a Brazilian-style restaurant.
For many Brazilians, things in the U.S. appear so cheap it is hard not to buy everything in sight. Consider Vladimir Lúcio Martins's experience, a court clerk on vacation in the New York area last month with his family. A motorcyclist, Mr. Martins bought a Shoei helmet for $587, a quarter the cost in his hometown of Presidente Prudente, he said. He made repeat trips to T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores in New Jersey. At a Costco in Clifton, N.J., he couldn't believe the $7 price of a can of Kraft Parmesan Cheese, a fraction of the Brazil cost. He bought it.
The Martinses total take filled nearly six 70-pound bags—their airline luggage limit.
But back in Brazil, not everyone thinks it's so great Brazilians travel all the way to the U.S. to buy everything from work clothes to cheese.
In December, Brazil said its economy unexpectedly stalled in the third quarter. The main reason: Commerce and manufacturing both shrank by 1% from the previous quarter.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has sought all year to weaken Brazil's currency, to little avail. In recent months, the government announced several packages of incentives and other measures to make local manufacturing and retail more competitive. To pay for them, Brazil also set a 6% tax on overseas credit-card purchases.
So far little has worked. The currency has declined some, but remains up more than 25% from early 2009. Brazilians are on pace to spend 60% more overseas than last year, already a record. Along the way, visa processors at the U.S. consulate in Sao Paulo have become the world's busiest.
For now "a lot of our sales are concentrated on things you can't bring back on the plane, like cars and televisions," said Fabio Pina, an economist with the Brazil's Fecomercio retailers association. His daughter had just returned from purchasing a stroller and other infant gear in the U.S., he said.
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