As the after effects of the Great Recession continue to linger on, many consumers are still feeling the weight of stagnating wages, unemployment and leveraged balance sheets. The "new normal" has taken the wind out of many consumers' sails as discretionary items have given way to staples purchases. Funds like the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLP) have become well-liked by investors to play this trend. However, many analysts believe that one area of the discretionary sector may be a great portfolio play.

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The Growth in Aspirational Brands
Despite all the gloom and doom facing consumers, those companies that sell aspirational or accessible luxury brands could be one of the values in the discretionary sector. Many previously high-end only companies have started adding more exposure to middle- to upper-income shoppers by creating "entry level" goods and expanding into less than glamorous cities like Pittsburgh, Nashville and Baltimore. These products still purvey the status symbol image, but often come in at a cheaper price point. Jeweler Tiffany's (NYSE:TIF) not only sells $50,000 diamond necklaces, but also relatively inexpensive $250 bracelets. Consumers still get the blue box and the prominence along with it. Increased spending among these aspirational consumers is helping provide a lift to companies that cater to more upscale tastes.

Now may be the time for investors to pounce on these stocks that own accessible luxury brands. Many of those consumers who economized during the downturn and have taken longer to rebound than the ultra-wealthy are starting to spend again. In addition, less affluent individuals looking for affordable status symbols should increase in small luxury spending as well. As the economy continues its recovery and enters the later stages of the business cycle, these faster growing discretionary stocks will outperform their consumer staples counterparts. Those that offer these status symbol brands should do even better.

An Accessible Luxury Portfolio
Even with the overall American consumer still struggling, many are finding a way to purchase these aspirational or "near-luxury" brands. Investors wanting to add a catch-all position in the consumer story can use the PowerShares S&P Small-Cap Consumer Discretionary ETF (Nasdaq:XLYS). The fund includes holdings in accessible luxury brands such as Steven Madden (Nasdaq:SHOO) and diamond retailer Blue Nile (Nasdaq:NILE). However, there are plenty of individual choices as well.

As the leading American producer of luxury lifestyle handbags and other fashion accessories, Coach (NYSE:COH) could be the poster-child for aspirational branding. The leather maker recently reported significant sales improvement, with direct sales increasing 17% in North America and indirect in both the U.S. and international markets increasing by 28%. In addition, watch producer Movado (NYSE:MOV) stands to benefit from Coach's success as it produces timepieces for the brand as well as other near-luxury brands such as Lacoste and Hugo Boss.

During the first half of 2010, craft beer sales were up nearly 12% by revenue and 9% by volume, while total overall beer sales were down nearly 3%. Leading the craft-brewers resurgence in America, Boston Beer's (NYSE:SAM) Sam Adam's brand is still one of the best ways to play America's love affair with designer suds.

After losing its "cool" factor to low priced teen retailers such as Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO), higher priced Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) seems to have regained its preppy mojo back. A&F's profit jumped 95%, as the apparel retailer continued regaining ground it lost during the recession in the U.S. The company has reported higher international sales growth.

Bottom Line
In the wake of the Great Recession, the consumer story in the United States is ever evolving. While many consumers have not returned to their free-spending ways, consumption on aspirational and accessible luxury goods is rising. Companies that market these affordable status symbols will be the catalysts for growth in the sector. The previous mentioned stocks along with Ray Ban sunglasses maker Luxottica Group SpA (NYSE:LUX) are great ways to play that trend. (For more, see Leisure Funds: Where Luxury And Fun Come To Make Money.)

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