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Taking flight – Opportunities and obstacles in democratising luxury

Vuitton, large, balloon, ad, print, louvre

I don’t think democratic luxury exists. I don’t believe in something for everyone… How can we possibly put these products on the Web site without the tactile experience of luxury?”

- Brunello Cucinelli

The democratisation of fashion took a beating this past week as news reached Zeitgeist that Fashion’s Night Out was to be no more. Spearheaded by Anna Wintour at the height of the global recession, the idea was for a curated evening; a chance for stores to open their doors late, inviting a party atmosphere and focussing spend on a calendar event. The Wall Street Journal wrote that last year, “Michael Kors judged a karaoke competition at his store on Madison Avenue, rapper Azealia Banks performed at the MAC store in Soho and a game night was held at a Kate Spade store.” The evening festivities were replicated across New York, London and other cities.
Zeitgeist happened to be on Manahattan’s Spring Street last September when the most recent FNO was held, waiting patiently for a perenially-late friend who works next door to Mulberry. While waiting, it was absolutely fascinating to see the sheer of variety of people out on the street. While the crowds were mostly composed of women, the groups ranged from college-aged JAPs and the avant-garde to hipsters and stay-at-home mothers. Most gawped excitedly as they beheld the Mulberry boutique, enticed by the glimpses of free food and drink, as well the sultry bass tones of some cool track. One elegantly dressed fashionista strode hurriedly past Zeitgeist, lamenting to her cellphone “Oh God, it’s Fashion’s Night Out tonight”.
Ultimately perhaps it was such feelings among the fashion set that caused FNO to come to an abrupt end. But Zeitgeist got the sense that, while undeniably a celebration of fashion and an opportunity for brands to showcase their attractively experiential side – particularly to those who might usually be deterred by luxury brands and their perceived sense of formality – there weren’t a great deal of people actually buying things. It’s quite possible that the whole strategy of attracting a crowd who would not otherwise frequent such stores backfired; they turned up, sampled the free booze, felt what it must be like to shop at such-and-such a label, then moved on to the next faux-glitzy event with thumping music. This then was a failed attempt to bring luxury to the masses.

On a macro scale, the cause for democratisation is hardly helped by the global financial crisis. Although over four years old, the ramifications and scarring done to the economy are still sorely felt. This is illustrated in the unemployment figures around the world, tumultuous elections and anecdotal tales of hardship. More starkly, they are being backed up by solid quantitative research that proves we as a world are less connected now than we were in 2007. In December last year, The Economist reported on the DHL Global Connectedness Index, which concluded that connections between countries in 2012 were shallower (meaning less of the nation’s economy is internationalised) and narrower (meaning it connects with fewer countries) than before the recession. Meanwhile, just this past week, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report showing financial capital flows between countries were still 60% below their pre-recession high. This kind of business environment hardly fosters egalitarian conduct, and indeed such isolationist thinking was on show at Paris Fashion Week recently, where designers clung to their French heritage as a badge of honour. Exactly at the time when art needs to be leading the way in cultural integration, as emerging markets not only continue to make up a larger part of the customer base, but also develop their own powerful brands, it seemed that designers, like the financial markets, retreated to what they knew and found safe.

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The world is less connected today than in 2007

Where the ideology of democratising fashion has seen more success is of course online. We’ve written before about how luxury is struggling with the extent to which they invest in e-commerce. One of the principle hurdles is that the nature of luxury – elite, arcane, exclusive – is more or less diametrically opposed to the nature of the Internet – open, borderless, democratic.
Yet the story of Yoox – the popular and, in online terms, long-lasting fashion ecommerce platform – and its founder is one of just such democratisation. (It is particularly stunning to read of the difficulties the founder, a Columbia MBA graduate, Lehman Brothers and Bain & Co. alum, had in attracting VC funding). It also, crucially, points to the importance of recognizing multiple audiences, and how they like to shop differently depending on context. John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, reports that when Federico Marchetti set up Yoox in 2000, the world of ecommerce for fashion was regarded as a not particularly salubrious environment. Rather, the magazine compares it to outlet stores like Woodbury Common, fifty miles north of New York. Luxury brands like Prada and Marni could be found there, offering deep discounts on their wares, and it was for that reason – and the lack of control over their own brand – that they didn’t like much to talk about such places. This, despite the fact that they attracted 12 million people in 2011, “almost twice the number of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum”. Yoox was likewise greeted with much trepidation by fashion retailers. The article quotes an analyst from Forrester Research:

“It was a matter of principle with luxury brands that only people who shop on eBay use the internet – and their only interest was in getting a low price.”

Marchetti’s only available source of designer clothing was from last season and beyond, as no brand would sell their current collection. He curried favour with some of them though by advertising the prices without noting the discount customers were getting. Other than that, luxury brands took little or no notice.

Online shopping though would prove to be “one of the largest disruptions of the luxury-goods industry since the birth of the department store”. There are three kinds of online store today; those that sell deep-discounted goods on end-of-season wear, those that sell in-season clothing, and those that have flash sales of small numbers of clothing or accessories. It turned out there was an audience for all of these types of website. Bridget Foley, executive editor of WWD is quoted in the article saying “[T]here has been a sea change in attitude… I think [it] surprised the fashion industry… Just because you love clothes doesn’t mean you love shopping“. This struck Zeitgeist as one of the more important insights in the lengthy article. Though retailers often harp on about the importance of the retail environment, the need to touch the product, to be in an atmosphere where everything has been curated down to the finest detail, online neutralises all of that. This idea threatens those in the luxury sector, as the thinking goes that any such premium on products may seem less justifiable away from a Peter Marino-designed armchair and a nice glass of champagne. Such ideas are being challenged though. Not only is the nature of the store changing – from robotic sales staff to customers as models on the catwalk – but so is the view of the luxury customer as a homogenous, static group, devoid of context. Zeitgeist was at a Future of Media summit at the Broadcast Video Expo last week, where, as behavioural economics suggest, MD of Commercial, Online and Interactive for ITV Fru Hazlitt insisted that consumers had to be targeted in ways that were pertinent to them, not only as demographic groups, but in ways that recognised the context of how approachable they were likely to be at the time, given the programming they were watching. Fru admitted that in years past, broadcasters like ITV had seen advertising as “space to rent out”. Now they were thinking deeply about how and when is the right moment to reach their target consumer. It is the same in fashion. There is not one single way to reach the consumer; buyers of luxury goods do not want to be solely restricted to being able to buy your wares in a physical store.

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Chanel are one of the few remaining luxury brands to resist fully integrating online

Behavioural economics played a role in Marchetti’s initial framing of the audience for the website as well. He hired pedigreed fashion writers, as well as artists, architects and designers to make special projects that lent the website an air of curation, of something more special and rarefied that what one might find – or more importantly the way one might feel – at an outlet mall. Marchetti wanted the customers “to see themselves as connoisseurs, even if they were really just hunting for bargains”. The New Yorker article goes into some anecdotal detail about the way people shop on Yoox, which crucially differs not only from the way they would shop in-store, but also from other e-tailers. For online shopping in general, the experience is one where you can purchase ten items, and return nine of them with very little hassle, with credit for multiple rather than a single brand, and certainly no raised eyebrow from a pretentious shop assistant. Regarding specific sites, Yoox, unlike Net a Porter, for example, does not try to force a set of looks onto the user. Behavioural economics tell us that people irrationally value something more when they’ve been made to work a bit to get it. Such is the case now shopping for luxury items, which makes clothing not in-season (i.e. not currently in every shop window), both cooler and cheaper. It’s an act not to be discouraged. A Saks representative says customers who shop online as well as in store buy four times as much merchandise as customers who shop only in the store. What will worry retailers though is that the convenience of the online store outweighs the experience of the physical boutique. The New Yorker quotes a shopper: “I’ll never buy a dress at the Prada boutique again after getting these really amazing ones on Yoox.”

As well as setting up the Yoox website, Marchetti’s company now also powers the online stores of more than thirty fashion houses, including Armani and Jil Sander. Last summer, PPR joined in too, after conceding that their in-house expertise was not up to snuff. The latest development is making designs available to any customer as soon as it hits the runway. Burberry, as well as separate sites like Moda Operandi, have spearheaded this innovative change, which is effecting editorial as well as buying methods previously seen as unshakeable. The demand for this type of instant purchasing seems to be fueled by a niche – albeit a sizable one – that is not representative of the majority of luxury shoppers. The accessibility of a brand and its products is a tricky one to tread, one which Zeitgeist has written about several times before. Tom Ford performed a volte-face this year, after debuting his womenswear collection with no press and VIPs only, relented this year at London Fashion Week by letting bloggers write about the show. Chanel still steadfastly refuses to fully engage with online shopping. The tension is keenly felt in the New Yorker article, where Amazon’s new entry into the world of fashion is referenced. The CEO of Valentino is unconvinced: “Valentino is high luxury… People going to Amazon are not going to Valentino“. This smacks a little of pride and ignorance, for they most assuredly are, though perhaps not with luxury purchases in mind… yet.

It comes back to the idea that there are myriad types of luxury consumer. The industry has not fully acknowledged as of yet that the buying behaviour of a descendant of the ancien regime in Paris is unlikely to buy in the same way as a newly-minted businessman in Shenzhen. They may know that these types of buyers exist, and they may even create different products for each. Importantly though, they are not recognising that these people may go about purchasing in a different way. It’s not just a purchase journey that has changed massively in recent years, as McKinsey’s consumer decision journey illustrates above. It’s also, as ITV’s Fru Hazlitt insists, about recognising that different people shop in different ways, wholly dependent on context. Though Fashion’s Night Out may be on permanent hiatus, and though the global economy may be sputtering along in second gear, the opportunities to leverage deep insights into consumer purchase preferences are there for the taking. Yoox, along with a deeply complicated algorithm, are trying to tap into just this. But the process must start with realising that yes, actually, someone might want to pick up that Valentino dress while surfing on Amazon.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 5 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

For Luxury, what price service?

October 28, 2012 4 comments

Whither the sage of a shop assistant? At a time when we as consumers have access to all the information we could want about a brand and its products via our smartphones, of what use is it to have someone tell me something that I am unlikely to take at face value, working as they are for said brand? Why even bother being in the store at all when I can be buying my item at home? The luxury goods company PPR (owners of Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Balenciaga et al.) could be said to have recently adopted a similar mindset. A new joint venture with e-tailer Yoox is sure to shake things up. Honcho Francois-Henri Pinault said recently, “While the whole industry has been resisting e-commerce for the last 15 years it’s now realising it’s inescapable”.

Not everyone believes such a move is inevitable. Chanel is steadfastly refusing to sell its principle collections – from ready to wear to handbags – online for the foreseeable future, according to a recent interview with the CEO. While this might strike some as akin to sticking one’s head in the sand, the reasoning the company gives centres around the unique experience of going into a store to buy a product, rather than sitting at home in one’s pajamas. From a strategic point of view, the idea is sound. Reducing avenues of purchase encourages a scarcity factor that high-end fashion must rely on. It also ensures that the products are seen in the best light possible, incredibly important when justifying such a premium. It’s interesting to note that though the thinking may be sound, it is certainly not appropriate for every luxury brand to be resisting the lures of online shopping in such a dramatic way. Chanel is – and always will be, in multiple ways – a very special company, an exceptional brand, in the literal sense. Like Apple though, it’s practices are to be emulated with caution, as a great paper by McKinsey Quarterly highlights. “Outliers are exactly that…”, the report states.

But what is the state of stores, and how important is service in these places? For luxury, we can assume a high priority of the physical shopping experience is connected to the person assisting you. Recent experiences at two different luxury goods stores highlighted jarring differences, monumentally affecting the way Zetigeist felt about the brand. Last month in New York, Zeitgeist visited Tiffany & Co. to find a Christening present. Without turning this article into a rambling letter of complaint, the section Zeitgeist found itself in was woefully understaffed, and when help was available, information turned out to be incorrect and, most importantly, not dispensed as if it were important to them. Zeitgeist left without buying anything. The experience was deflating enough to mention to the manager en route to leaving the store. Returning at the weekend to try again, the experience had not much improved. The item needed to be engraved. Taking it into one of the London stores upon returning home meant being greeted with the same mediocre level of service. No passion, no interest. This would be perfectly acceptable for somewhere such as Ernest Jones, but Tiffany is a massively, massively powerful brand. For many it is incredibly evocative, and speaks to nostalgia and deep-seated emotions with very personal connections. There is a dream that is Tiffany, that is replicated extremely well in their above-the-line marketing. It is completely absent in its physical embodiment, the store. Cartier, by comparison, manage to present a fantastical vision of their brand, while also maintaining a consistently excellent level of service in-store that brings cohesion to the image it evinces.

Louis Vuitton could not have presented a starker contrast to Tiffany. The brand had one brief flirtation with TV ads about four years ago. While also a powerful brand, it perhaps could not be said to elicit such powerful emotions as Tiffany, purely on the basis that Tiffany purchases might often be assumed to be gifts. Purchasing what is surely one of the cheapest things in the store, Zeitgeist was delighted to be led through the purchase process by an exceedingly-well trained woman, who was happy to go over the minutiae of the purchase, and knew answers to arcane questions when asked. It made the experience extremely pleasurable. Remarkably, the store went a step further, sending Zeitgeist a random act of kindness and imploring to get in touch if further assistance was required.

That kind of experience simply cannot be replicated online. If Amazon were to start selling Prada clothing anytime soon, the dissonance would be powerful. So while the luxury industry, and many in the retail sector at large, struggle with the idea of the shopper journey online, moreover how and where that connects with the physical journey, we cannot forget basics. The importance of good training, especially for demanding customer who are expecting a premium experience, cannot be overstated. Though smartphones and tablets may hold the data, it must be remembered that the purchase of a luxury product is often an irrational experience. The service and assistance received during purchase consideration may be an irrational influence, but it is an immensely powerful one. If a brand talks the talk, it must walk the walk, or face the consequences of failing to live up to its own promises.

Luxury pushes beyond the store

September 2, 2012 1 comment

Luxury brands have found it hard to come to terms with the shift in consumer shopping habits from retail to online. For several years they have dipped their toes in the water of digital, but with little commitment and much hesitation (until recently). This is understandable. Often for luxury products, the justification for higher prices is only evident upon seeing the item in real life, or it can sometimes be intangible. These assets are hard to replicate when seen on a computer screen. A store’s retail environment allows the company to control every aspect of the brand experience. Someone checking out the Louis Vuitton website could be using a slow computer in an old browser; the experience will suffer, and there is nothing the brand can do about it. Much more sensible then to invest in concept stores, such as the recent one in Selfridges. But there needs to be a focus still about managing the brand and courting attention beyond the four walls of the shop.

So it should be of little surprise to see that recently luxury has been looking to broaden its horizons in the physical space, aiming to brand experiences that seamlessly fit into the lifestyle that they think is associated with their brand. This was evident in no small part when Zeitgeist took a trip recently to St. Tropez. Before even entering the town, visitors were greeted with the sight of mega-yachts and enormous Gin Palaces, and – on one of the days Zeitgeist visited – evidence of the relatively recent collaboration between Gucci and Riva (see above picture). Such a partnership probably helps the former more than the latter. It certainly helps validate the clothing company’s brand, which sometimes fails to leverage its relatively strong heritage. Walking away the port – past the recycling collections strewn with empty bottles that had once contained vintage wine and champagne – toward the famous Place des Lices brings you face-to-face with the hotel White 1921. This is one of LVMH’s newest incarnations, an eight-room hotel.

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It was a beautiful hotel to behold, and had just opened the week Zeitgeist was visiting. Though much in need of a lunchtime glass of champagne – the brand here makes the most of its ownership of several champagne labels – the dining area was sadly not open until the evening. White 1921 is not alone as a recent example of hospitality being managed by a luxury brand. LVMH’s first such hotel was back in 2010 in Courchevel, named Cheval Blanc. More recently, Bulgari have launched their own hotel in London’s Knightsbridge area, close to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The St. Regis hotel in New York now has a small collection of fashion-related suites, including the Dior Suite. All this is about embracing a certain idea, a crystallising of what it means to be living a particular lifestyle. The question for LVMH begins to arise as to whether, strategically speaking, having one arm of your company (Dior in this case) having a room owned by St. Regis creates any significant competition between the hotels you are opening elsewhere in the world. The more they open, and the more branded suites appear under competitor’s names, the stickier this situation could get.

Releasing products that compete for the same consumer type is never a good idea, and is a mistake General Motors made. A very good essay on this is available in Richard Rumelt’s ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. The market is becoming crowded. Hermès has side-stepped this by designing luxury apartments in Singapore. Some companies have thought at a more granular, perhaps relevant, level. Trunk-maker Moynat have teamed up with the famous Le Meurice hotel in Paris by providing French chef Yannick Alléno with a roll-in trunk so he could cook breakfast for guests in the comfort of their own room. It’s an inspired idea that retains the original idea of what makes the brand special and heightens it by creating a unique experience for the consumer. The New York Times reports,

The chef’s breakfast trunk is genuinely designed to travel, its porcelain plates held upright with leather straps and its cutlery in drawers. Mr. Alléno already has plans to send it to hotels where he has connections, first in Dubai in September, then to Courchevel in the ski season and on to Marrakech. At each destination, he will make a personal appearance and demonstration.

Similarly, Prada has thought about how best to showcase its ready-to-wear line, in this case including its clothing in the sumptuous film The Great Gatsby, due out next summer. The highlight of Zeitgeist’s time in St. Tropez was in visiting one particular boutique. Christian Dior, while not be a brand one immediately associates with good food, featured an open courtyard that hosted a cafe dedicated to indulgent delights. Mr Alleno was also responsible for the food here. It was an impressive exercise in brand management… and excellent profiteroles.

Yves Saint Laurent – What’s in a name?

Zeitgeist has written before about the luxury goods company Yves Saint Laurent. Then-creative director Stefano Pilati opined, “[I]t’s such a contradiction, because we want to be luxurious and have 300 shops all around the world, but you can’t be luxurious with 300 shops around the world”. It’s always difficult to introduce dramatic innovation to a company that conversely prides itself on provenance and tradition. In trying to adhere to past methods, what starts out as a respectful outlook can lead to stagnation. It was evidently with this in mind that incoming designer for YSL, Hedi Slimane, has decided not only to personally redesign all retail environments – as he did at his last post at Dior Homme – but also to change the name of the brand itself, to Saint Laurent Paris.

It is not the first time a luxury label has grappled with a name change. “Gianni Versace” was similarly shortened some years ago to “Versace”; more recently Dolce & Gabbana’s more affordable “D&G” brand, announced it is to be shuttered due to consumer confusion over nomenclature. YSL’s name change is actually a return to tradition of course, as the brand used to be known as Saint Laurent Paris. This news was overlooked though on Twitter, where a lot of the knee-jerk reactions to the news were far from positive. The move will allow Slimane to stamp a real sense of authority on the brand, much as he did while at Dior, where many objective observers rightly claim he revolutionised contemporary menswear.

Most importantly though, the renaming should help move the brand away from the vestiges of any remaining cheap associations (evinced by the above person wearing a YSL polo shirt). In the 1980s, the company sold licenses to use its name to over 200 different companies, which led to poor-quality clothing being produced under the YSL marque, and a significant erosion of brand equity. A similar situation befell ’70s doyen Halston. Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris has the opportunity to breathe new life into the company, while still maintaining a distinct sense of style that the eponymous designer would have been proud of.

Luxury Retail Activation

February 16, 2012 2 comments

A couple of superb examples of retail activation at the premium and luxury end of the spectrum. Interestingly, both are examples of companies relying heavily on associations with the past, in particular nostalgia. It’s no surprise that people want to forget their current predicaments, and presumably the upcoming Future Laboratory trends briefing – Not/stalgia – will touch on this.

Louis Vuitton is cementing its cultural ties with bygone eras and modern masterpieces. It is lending “support” – presumably financial – to the new fourth plinth installation at London’s Trafalgar Square. Variety magazine reported last week that the brand has also signed a “three year partnership with Rome’s venerable Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, comprised of sponsoring scholarships… tutoring and… workshops”. Zeitgeist has been to the Louis Vuitton store in Rome a couple of times over the years, and always thought it a bit small. The addition of a bookshop, let alone a cinema, to the list of requirements, was far from expected. The brand, whose heritage stretches back to 1854, has recently unveiled a new flagship store in the eternal city. According to PSFK, “The Louis Vuitton Maison Etoile Rome includes a book room dedicated to Italian cinema… It also features a 19-seat cinema, which will screen short films, documentaries and original creations.” It is a beautiful-looking store that leverages its own history by using complementary environmental, geographic and artistic devices. Zeitgeist looks forward to visiting soon.

Those readers in New York might recently have found themselves briefly feeling like they had stepped back in time 90 years or so. Boardwalk Empire is a critically acclaimed and popular television series produced by the pay-cable channel HBO, of whose merits The Economist elucidated in detail recently. The programme’s Facebook page recently reached 1 million fans. It is a story set in the era of Prohibition, a time of sharp suits, Trilby hats, suspect crates and conversely a large amount of liquor. Faced with a stagnant market for DVDs, HBO conjured a bespoke shop, exclusively to celebrate the launch of the boxed set. But just as the bootleggers of the day had to be nifty and mobile, so did the brand, setting up streetside vendors. Simple but imaginative, effective and inspired.

The Technology Paradox in Retail

January 24, 2012 1 comment

In December, shopping transactions saw a 187% increase, year-on-year. This sounds like good news for the economy, and surely the high street. Unfortunately, this increase was purely for mobile shopping, as reported by IBM. Brand Republic, which picked up the story, noted “mobile traffic on retailers’ websites rocketed by 169%, meaning 15% of all traffic came from mobile devices during December”. The principal attractions of mobile commerce are easy to identify: it allows you to purchase items from anywhere with a phone signal rather than travelling into a store. It also allows the customer to shop around far more easily than would be possible on a high street for the best deal.

The drift toward mobile commerce, however beneficial and efficient for the customer, is part of myriad factors that are having a pejorative effect on the high street. Another, recently noted in a fantastic editorial in The Financial Times, detailed the onus shoppers must face up to, as a nation obsessed with the material quest for the very best deal possible. “We are all going to hell in a shopping basket”, read the headline.

“Through the internet we can now get relevant information instantaneously, compare deals and move our money at the speed of electronic impulses. Consumers and investors have never been so empowered. Yet these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.”

183 retailers fell into administration last year. The internet must shoulder a large part of the blame for this, as customers shift to the relaxation of shopping at home. Experian Hitwise reported that Boxing Day 2011 was the biggest ever day for online retail in the UK, an incredible stat (one of many covered by eConsultancy), especially while circumstances for bricks-and-mortar stores seem so dire.

However, while digital technology is keeping people from shopping on the high street, it is also helping it evolve. Recently, CNBC reported from New York on the National Retail Federation’s annual convention. Technology companies like Intel and IBM were front and centre, and willing to engage ever more deeply with brands. 73% of consumers were willing to share their demographic information with retailers in order to improve targeted communications. In the store itself, Macy’s has unveiled Beauty Spot, a digital mirror that lets you try on what you want, what is suggested to you by the mirror, and share your looks with your friends, according to TIME magazine. Also at the conference, Kraft featured a vending machine that featured face-recognition technology, registering your ethnographic details and dispensing samples based on that data.

The possibilities for clothing are significant, too. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft unveiled a prototype digital mirror for retailers. PSFK noted it “relies on the Kinect gaming system and basically allows people to try on clothes before taking their final selection to the dressing room”. Moreover, last month, the e-tailer Gilt Groupe teamed up with GQ magazine to create a men’s high-fashion retail experience in the so-fashionable-it’ll-soon-be-uncool Meatpacking District of New York. The FT has more.

Such movements are part of a burgeoning trend toward blurring the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar retail. But for the latter way of shopping, the problems are immediate. An article in this week’s The Economist referenced a report commissioned by the government in December that claimed “one in three of the nation’s high streets is failing“. Places like Argos, Mothercare and Thorntons plan to close up to one third of their shops. Conversely, the magazine references a survey conducted by Saatchi & Saatchi which detailed 16-29 year olds’ feelings on retail. Apart from enjoying a good shop, “42% said that, if they were to start a small business, it would be on the high street”. This puts a desire to see an epicentre of retail / beating heart of a town against an indolence born of the luxury of being able to shop while in the bathroom. To combat this dilemma of desires, Anne Robinson-lookalike Mary Portas has made several suggestions as shopping czar to the government, including requirements for a “quota of affordable shops”. This idea is pure lunacy. State intervention in market commerce is not a road we want to go down.

While the article offers some hope, detailing the importance of improvements to infrastructure, and making space above retailers into shops again rather than flats, the major threat is from online retailers. Last week, the Financial Times reported solemnly,

“Tesco [will] call a halt on new hypermarkets, believing the internet offers the most profitable future for non-food sales. Retail analysts believe Tesco’s admission marks a watershed moment for high street retail chains. Many have already seen their business models trampled over by the big supermarkets, but now they must follow the leader’s structural shift towards online sales, or face extinction.”

These are dire times for retailers, but things will not improve until they fully embrace the inevitable march of technology, both in their stores, and in people’s homes. With another recession looming, now is not the time to bury one’s head in the sand and hope for the best.

We all scream for Anya Hindmarch

Recently, as London began to reveal its true beauty in the summertime, part of the Zeitgeist entity popped over to an event at the Anya Hindmarch flagship on Sloane Street. Glow Urban Spa had set up shop within the boutique, and the purpose of the day was to give customers a tour of the new collection, a free manicure and – what Zeitgeist was really concerned with – free, delicious ice cream. It was a well-orchestrated event, but most importantly it was also one that had an incredibly laid back feel. This was not an aberration.

Speaking to a shop assistant, Zeitgeist learned that all the brand’s events are like this, and that Anya herself tries to cultivate an aura of relaxed elegance and luxury. This, as opposed to some of the other stores that sit on the same street, which were described as “antiseptic”. Hindmarch, the store and the person, make a conscious effort to court and keep the customer. They rightly feel that a condescending tone does not help foster fidelity. It’s something that other luxury brands could borrow from; you don’t have to be patronising and cold in order to be elite. And as the local mothers drifted in around 4pm having picked up their children from school, as sons strained to pick their ice cream flavour and daughters giggled while their nails were done, Zeitgeist imagined that this must have been just the sort of atmosphere Anya was aiming for.

Chanel’s Sign of Failure

Chanel Sloane Street London sign fail

Chanel Sloane Street Boutique

There’s not much to say about this really as the picture speaks for itself. Just remember that everything you do, particularly on the front door of the Sloane Street incarnation of your company, reflects on the equity of your brand. Scrawling a misspelled, hastily-written message couldn’t be more offensive to the elegance that Chanel claims to represent. Very poor indeed.

Sustaining the Green Push for Brands

Zeitgeist was recently asked to write an article on sustainability trends for the coming year. The following is an altered excerpt of the original article…

There is a hotel in Italy, nestling in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. It literally blends in to the surrounding hills; they form part of the architecture of the building. The Klima Hotel is not just an aesthetic triumph, however, for the soil that forms the roof of also helps keep the building insulated, saving on both cost as well as emissions that would otherwise be generated from artificial heating.

Today, sustainability issues are more prevalent than ever, as organisations and corporations desperately try to set themselves apart from their peers, creating a manifesto for their brand. Often though these efforts can amount to little more than lip service, a practice in danger of becoming as saturated in use as the phrase ‘lip service’. So many brands are exploiting these issues that it no longer suffices merely to say x amount of the paper used in the office is being recycled. There has to be a point, a purpose to the policy that goes beyond cosmetic dalliance. It’s not just about having a solar panel here or a wind turbine there, though these are important things. It’s about recognising changing shopper habits; since the recession, people want to be able to keep items for longer, reuse them, pass them on or put them to a different use entirely.

Pepsi’s Refresh Project has been an earnest attempt at promoting issues of sustainability, and not just environmental. Several supermarkets are currently making an impressive effort in this area too… Sainsbury’s take their sustainability credentials out of store, with beehives to help sustain the bee population, and even treehouses for, well, who wouldn’t want a treehouse? The Sainsbury’s in Gloucester Quay has employed an impressive array of sustainable initiatives, one of the most interesting being a device that takes the kinetic energy of cars as they pass into the car park and uses it to help power the store. It’s technology like this that can be taken a step further; can these touch-sensitive pads be used to monitor where free spaces exist, to direct shoppers using digital signage? 7-Eleven in Japan are planning to use LED lighting and solar panels on 1,000 of their stores, but the key point is their desire for charging points for the Prius. It illustrates that sustainability is not just relegated to specific areas, it is a way of life, a lifestyle that encourages responsibility as well as innovation. So far we’re lacking the impetus for that innovation…

What constitutes the next step? One trend is that of upcycling, that of not just dumping your goods into a big box with a swirly arrow on it, rather actually stretching the efficiency of your products once their initial purpose has expired and reconstituting them for entirely different purposes. At a recent LS:N trends briefing, London designer James Gilpin’s latest work was mentioned; it involves using urine from diabetics (therefore with a heavy sugar content) and turning it into a premium, single malt ‘Gilpin Family Whisky’. In this instance, the material is such that it is already labeled as ‘waste’, but actually still has the potential to be something else. While shopper habits might preclude a desire to see old urine sitting on supermarket shelves any time in the near future, as consumers get more thrifty, such a philosophy would go down well in homeware.

There is more than enough room then for aesthetic beauty and sustainability to co-exist. Fashion brand Hermès recently launched a line of accessories created from upcycled materials. The copy for a brand of upcycled wooden watches is beautiful in of itself; “Completely absent of artificial and toxic materials, the WEWOOD Timepiece is as natural as your wrist. It respects your skin as you respect nature by choosing it… the perfect natural mate, whose story also becomes yours”. Selfridge’s recently unveiled its Project Ocean, “aiming to raise awareness of the dangers of over-fishing”, Contagious reports. One very whimsical example recently highlighted by PSFK was the creation of furniture from old parts of the fair on New York’s Coney Island. Not only is this sustainable production, but it also imbues these “new” items with an in-built past, a piece of history that people can continue to live with (and eat off of, too, I suppose). And we all know how things get better with age.

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