Last week, a regular customer walked into Calvert-Woodley Liquors on Connecticut Avenue to look at French Bordeaux. He walked out with $8,000 worth of wine that averaged $20 to $22 a bottle, secure in the knowledge that "these prices will never be seen again," said store President Ed Sands.
The rise in prices of imported wines is not the result of an unforseen frost in the Bordeaux region. Rather, it is due to the continuing slide in the value of the U.S. dollar compared with foreign currencies, which compels foreign producers to charge more dollars for their goods to achieve the same return in their own currencies. Importers of foreign goods have seen the prices of everything from clothing to leather goods to automobiles rise in the past three months as the dollar has hit record lows in foreign exchange markets in Tokyo, Europe and New York.sw
Yet merchants and economists alike agree that while foreign manufacturers have raised prices in this country, the increases have not reflected the full decline in the dollar. In many cases, they said, foreign producers continue to absorb the price increases in order to remain competitive against rival U.S. products and cheaper imports.
"Some of the suppliers are cutting back on prices because they want to maintain the U.S. market," said Sands, adding that French wine makers in particular have a good understanding of how great a price difference American wine drinkers are willing to pay before switching to less expensive California wines.
"Right now, wholesalers and retailers are trying to cooperate," said Petra Goette, general manager for Gucci stores in Washington, who said that as prices escalate, some stores have reduced their profit margins to hold onto business.
Against a strong currency such as the Japanese yen, the dollar has declined about 50 percent in the past 2 1/2 years, or about 20 percent a year, according to David Wyss, chief financial economist with Data Resources Inc. Prices of manufactured imports have gone up only 10 percent a year.
The Labor Department cited these price increases on imported goods between September 1986 and September 1987: beverages and tobacco, up 5.2 percent; chemicals, 6.5 percent; wine (fresh grapes), 8.5 percent; woven cotton textiles, 13.9 percent; outer garments for girls and women, 12.2 percent; and footware, 7.1 percent.
"These prices are pretty close to what the consumer is paying," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist for Prudential Bache Securities Inc. "But they are nothing compared to what they could have been if the burden was fully placed on the consumer."
Yardeni said most foreign producers have simply absorbed the price increases. "These foreign competitors are tough," he said. "Already there is some indication that some Japanese will do business at 120 yen." The yen closed yesterday at 133.75 to the dollar. A year ago, the yen was at 164 to the dollar.
Wyss, however, said that strategy is wearing thin.
"They are running out of room," he said of Japanese manufacturers. "You can't lose money on every item you sell and try to make it up on volume."
He predicted that prices on imports will continue to rise at about 10 percent annually, while increases on American-made products will be marginal during the next year or two.sw
In some areas, prices will increase by more than 10 percent, according to industry analysts. In apparel, for example, prices have gone up 10 percent to 15 percent -- and are likely to increase another 10 percent for both the spring and fall lines, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Walter Loeb.
While those increases will be most evident on high-fashion apparel from Europe, it will also be felt on imports from the Far East, experts said.
Price increases on Japanese products will vary widely depending on the industry, according to analysts. In consumer electronics, where there is tremendous competition for items like videocassette recorders and television sets, prices have remained stable or declined, while Japanese automobile prices have soared.
"Japanese manufacturers have to move the inventory because of the competition" for televisions and VCRs," said Orhan Onaran, general manager of the sales division for the Washington area Erol's stores. With a number of large Japanese companies marketing VCRs under their own name, high-quality equipment can now be had for under $200, he said.sw
"Every year, they say pricing's got to go back up, but it never happens," said Onaran. This year, there is speculation that VCR prices will go up because Panasonic, the number one manufacturer of VCRs -- all of which are made in Japan -- has said it will raise prices in January. Yet, retailers say they will believe it when they see it.
Japanese autos are another story. Since October 1985, the average cost of a Japanese car sold in this country has climbed more than 17 percent, adding nearly $2,000 to the price tags of those cars. While much of that increase was due to the strength of the yen against the dollar, until this year, sales of popular Japanese cars seemed impervious to the effects of the dollar's fall.
Now, some Japanese auto makers, including Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Isuzu, are finding that their higher prices are hurting sales. Nissan has a 108-day supply of cars in a market where a 60-day supply is considered normal, and Isuzu has a 112-day supply, according to November figures compiled by Automotive News, a Detroit auto trade journal.
Consumers have been insulated from price increases in some areas because of large inventories purchased before the dollar's recent drop.
"It really hasn't affected us yet," said Emily Cohen, director of promotions for G Street Fabrics in Rockville, who said that many of the store's fabrics were in stock before the worst of the dollar's drop this fall.
But, come the first of the year, that will change. "We're just starting to buy for spring," said Cohen, who noted that if Italian woolens and linens go up as much as some experts are predicting, they may be in short supply. "If prices go too high, we may not buy them," she said.
On other items, "we try to maintain a price point for the customer. They've come to expect that," she said.
"Prices will go up after the first of the year," Sands said, referring to the wine market. "Depending on the item and the country, as much as 20 to 30 percent. Some customers are aware of it and are buying heavily," he said.
So far, however, retailers said they have seen little resistance to higher prices from consumers. "If somebody looks for quality, they're willing to pay the price," said Goette of Gucci.
Paul Leblang, senior vice president of marketing for Saks Fifth Avenue agreed. "The customer still prefers to buy more expensive merchandise," said Leblang, citing European designer clothing and Italian shoes.
Staff writer Warren Brown also contributed to this article.