Key Characteristics of Luxury Retailing: What's Missing Online

Awesome thumbnail image from Rudy Pospisil.

It's that time of year when the brands and retailers bring out the big guns in holiday store windows, flash collections, special promotions and enticing marketing campaigns.

It's also the time of year when gift suggestions are poring through the inbox and the Twitter feed, which is where YSL released news of their "online gift book". As I was virtually flipping through the pages, I started thinking about what a "luxury" experience is, and how that is or is not conveyed online.

In luxury retailing, there are several points that are critical, including:

  • Prominent location
  • Evocative presentation
  • Exceptional customer service
  • Advanced product experience (relates to external communications, display, customer service & knowledge conveyed from the clerk to the customer)
  • Comfort & ease of acquisition

Therefore, it naturally follows that these points of distinction should be prevalent in the online environment to maintain brand image consistency and appeal. How might that work?

Prominent Location

prada flagship milanThink of the the luxury fashion districts of the world. While brands have, in recent years, been focusing on store proliferation in secondary and tertiary cities (which really helped to convey the sense of mass-marketization in luxury, which is the reason most luxury leaders claimed to have avoided the internet for so long), we can all identify the traditional luxury districts in our respective regions (Fifth Avenue in NY, Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills, etc).

Luxury brands have traditionally stuck together in the prominent areas, working as "complimentors" instead of outright competitors. Just as no two brand styles directly overlap, no two store images are the same. However, just as all of the brands cooperate to produce regional fashion weeks, they have also traditionally cooperated in grouping their retail properties together to further boost the allure of the neighborhood, therefore collectively building hype.

What's my point?

First of all, just as on Earth, there are many unsavory places on the internet.Β  A luxury company avoiding the internet to avoid appearing "mass market" is the equivalent of that same company refusing to open a store anywhere on Earth because there are also some shady, ugly, dirty places out there.

Via Montenapoleone luxury district, Salone del Mobile Week, 2009

Secondly, because it is the nature of the luxury industry to work cooperatively, it seems that the best approach to the internet would be to maintain this communal action. For example, having a highly evocative central website with branded sites linking out can have the same affect as our physical shopping malls had in the 80s and 90s, and as our traditional fashion districts have had for the past 50 years. It might also go further to help instill some much-needed courage into the management of the lagging luxury brands, while also giving them easily accessible examples of some best practices that their "virtual neighbors" might provide, just as walking down the street of Via Montenapoleone here in Milan could give a store manager some cool ideas based on what his neighbors are doing in their shop windows, for example.

Evocative Presentation

If you remove the logo and all signage from the facade, how do you know a luxury store when you see one? Walking into the Gap, you might take a look at the folded piles of basics, the tightly-packed side aisles of seasonal touches, the back walls of sale items and jeans, the overhead photos of "real" people looking happy, relaxed and casual... Walking into Gucci, you feel as though you have walked into a sort of high-tech personal closet, where the clothes are spaciously organized by color and occasion-of-use, often featuring no more than a couple of SKUs in each style. Walking into Ralph Lauren, it certainly seems as though you have walked into a Rockefeller estate, with perhaps a full living room display and artifacts such as walking sticks and massive portraits hanging from the walls.

The Gap vs Gucci

Luxury brands provide an added layer of emotional involvement in their retail environment, because the customer is buying more than an object upon purchase. They are buying a symbolic gesture that communicates a part of their personality (whether aspirational or real) to their community, which says I am (or want to be) a part of this group. If the brand image and personality is not coming through loud and clear, what is there to buy? A pair of sunglasses is a pair of sunglasses (perhaps with the recent exception of Oakley), and an equally-amazing suit could perhaps be made for less money (and better fitting) by hand at talented tailor's studio.

The point? If the website isn't conveying the brand image and the community attitude in an evocative way, the brand can wave a tearful goodbye to the next generation who has already built their own personal "brand identities" online, and has very little patience for a brand that is supposed to be "more than..." but has not done the same.

Not THESE teens, but...Furthermore, a luxury brand should put some considerable thought and effort into creating an evocative presentation online, just as in the store. Setting the luxury brand image apart from the online image of the Gap should not equate to eliminating the e-commerce function. What it should equate to is creating a brilliant user experience that is emotional and inspiring for the consumer, and which creates communities of aspiring teenagers eager to blow their first corporate paychecks on something/anything from your brand to show that they've "made it" and they "belong".

Exceptional Customer Service

I recently spoke with a manager (aka: "Mr. Smith") from Hennessy Cognac, a division of LVMH, who told me a great story about customer service in the luxury sector. To paraphrase:

Mr. Smith said that he had been to the local Cartier store 4 times in his life: once to buy his first "status" watch as a young executive, then to buy an engagement ring, later to buy his wife a gift after the birth of their first child, and most recently to have the watch repaired. He said that not only did the sales staff recognize him upon entering the store, but they asked about his wife and daughter by name. (Yes, there is software to help assist with this kind of CRM- it's the same software that Quintessentially and the Bulgari Hotel uses.)

After being delighted with the service at Cartier and dropping off his watch, Mr. Smith went around the corner (being in the fashion/luxury district) to a store that is part of the LVMH family. Not only was he not greeted upon entry, but he was also not assisted by the staff, who preferred to gossip behind the counter although he was clearly interested in making a purchase. When he approached the desk to make his purchase, he presented the clerk with his LVMH executive credit card. A bit flushed, the clerk stepped into the side-office where Mr. Smith heard her ask the store manager if she should provide him with the employee discount. The store manager replied, "Not if he didn't ask for it." Needless to say, the store manager in charge of that operation was quickly replaced.

Alice Walton, one cool ladyIt remains the case that in some luxury stores, customers sometimes report feeling intimidated, ignored or even insulted by snobby staff. However, this is never the intention of the brand managers (or it shouldn't be), who have recognized that, since the grunge era and the dotcom boom, the wealthiest clients might walk through the door in sweats or, in the case of Alice Walton (above), the richest woman alive, a cowboy hat and a studded blouse. This trend less common in Europe, but with the popular introduction of Juicy Couture and now Abercrombie, even the Italians are beginning to dress-down down these days. If anything, it is the strategy of luxury retailers to make the customer experience the best one possible, whether that means having articles delivered for private in-home/office fittings, or even just spending an hour talking with one client about the leathers and creative techniques used in making two different handbags. (I have seen the latter in Bottega Veneta, where a clerk actually helped a customer to empty her existing handbag and pack all of her possessions into the Bottega bag, just to understand if it would fit, how much it would weigh, and how the shape would change.)

So, what makes a great customer service experience online? First of all, the ability to buy what you see, to be able to ask questions and get immediate, intelligent and friendly responses. But also, I believe it means having advanced access to the product, beyond what you might see at TopShop which, by the way, is some pretty cool stuff!

Advanced Product Experience

An emerging segment within the luxury market is that of the connoisseur: the more discrete luxury consumer who has a thorough knowledge of the product category (watches, sailing yachts, wines, whatever) and is more interested in obtaining the most exquisite items from that category and communicating with others "in the know" than she is in flashing logos.

Love is the modern luxury (& it's ethical!): AscensionIn addition, it is unlikely that the post-recession consumer will return to having much interest in buying expensive stuff without some serious validation behind it... and I'm not referring to celebrity validation. Like it or not, our world is becoming evermore transparent, and fleeting are the days when companies can slap a "Made in Italy" label on an item (most of which was actually made in Indonesia), apply a premium markup, and sell the item with full consumer trust. A post-Lehman Brothers transparent market demands ethical behavior. For the brands already practicing sustainable production, ethical trade agreements and so on, this is like a big gift (see AscensionOnline and the Ethical Fashion Forum for more). For all the others, it's a big loud wake-up call.

What does this mean online? It means that consumers buying a $2200 "shiny calf shopper" want more information than:


They want to know what a Brunito finish means, and why it's special... What part was made by hand, by whose hands, and where? Where did the calf leather come from and what are the ranching practices there? What was the process by which the leather was treated, thus rendering it "shiny"? They also want to know the story behind the product and the brand, and so in the case of Bottega Veneta, it would be beneficial to talk about the unique leather-weaving technique (intrecciato) that they teach to young artisans at the Scuola della Pelletteria Bottega Veneta in Vicenza, Italy for example. That's something very special, and yet it's not communicated. These are the little points that convince educated consumers to become "fans" and love a brand.

Furthermore, the consumer should be able to manipulate the views on-screen to really understand the art and craftsmanship employed in the product. Two flat-angle views are fine if I'm buying something standard online, like t-shirts or Post-It Notes, but if I'm making an investment purchase, I want to be able to spin the thing around, open the hood and take a look inside.

Detailed product and brand information adds intrigue and validity to the purchase, and gives consumers something to share with their friends. After all, these days what's important is not what you have, but what you share. The virtual customer should have as much if not more information available to them than the in-store customer.

Comfort & Ease of Acquisition

butlerWhen you think about the stereotypical butler, Jeeves (or the more modern version: Dorota), he's generally pretty helpful and courteous, right? He knows how you take your tea, and when and where to bring it. He orders the other staff around behind-the-scenes to make your life as easy as possible because you are Important, and shouldn't have to bother with those things, much less witness them.

The same thing goes for the luxury brand. The store manager is Jeeves, whether that's virtual or not. If you want something, he should make it as easy as possible for you to get it, and he should also build up an idea of what other things you might want. You shouldn't have to jump through hoops to make an online purchase, and you shouldn't have to stalk the customer service people if there is a problem.

In many online luxury organizations, the operations department faces great challenges in what products they can ship to specific countries (for example, any ivory that is less than 100 years old and does not come from a warthog is banned from the USA). It is therefore reasonable to deny requests from consumers in certain countries where the fulfillment of that request would be a crime. However, these kinds of issues should be stated upfront, before the purchase is made, and an alternative arranged. This goes hand-in-hand with customer service and product information, but it is often overlooked.

The Online Gift Book

Tweet from YSL

So why did I bother ranting about all of this?

As I mentioned way up there at the top of this post, I received this Tweet from YSL and I took a look at their gift book. It's literally a virtual scroll-through... I mean, they literally put the catalog on the internet as if it were in paper form, sent out a Tweet and walked away. That alone was pretty baffling, seeing as how the technology exists as a way to improve the experience... it was like putting a radio ad on the TV.

Anyway, I "flip" through a few pages and come across a necklace that I love. At least, I think I love it.

The necklace in question (right)

I click on it to get a closer look, hoping that a second window will open where I can get multiple views and hopefully spin the object 3-dimensionally, and possibly see it on a model. What I get is a message that said: "Double click to zoom in."Β  Okay, so I double click. The thing zooms in 2 settings: too small, and too big to see anything. I zoom back out and take a look at the product description for more details on material, size, price. The description says only: "Interlocking YSL Necklace in Gold Tone Metal."

There is no option to get details, to buy it on the spot, or to transfer to the e-store. I can only download the "book" or print it, neither of which I find particularly helpful.

So I'm still slightly curious, and I google "YSL" to get the online store. Here's problem #2: From the main page, the following is my click-stream...

Fashion & Accessories --> YSL e-shop (US only) --> Online Boutique (yes, AGAIN) --> Women --> Jewelry --> View All ... no necklace

Next I google "Interlocking YSL Necklace in Gold Tone Metal" and while came up with some mouth-watering necklaces, mine was not to be found.

So, YSL paid someone to make this online catalog for products that don't exist online.

What this probably amounts to is a bottleneck in the transfer of information between the in-house marketing at YSL and their online store's marketing team, and that's to be expected whenever 2 companies merge across overlapping functions (in this case, design house and e-commerce service provider). However, what a glitch like this ends up accomplishing is transforming a customer who was possibly interested in making a purchase into a frustrated non-customer who was eager to blog about it.

I'm thinking that's probably not the experience either of us were seeking.