“Everything has become more experiential”
– Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino
It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.
The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.
The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.
Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.
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.
While Britain recovers from the expected nadir of Murray’s loss and the majestic Federer’s subsequent victory at Wimbledon, and the tennis world celebrates a champion of the sport, the next Slam – the US Open, in New York – looms close by on the horizon. Zeitgeist will be going, but, like many others, had a terrible time purchasing tickets online.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”. So says the moniker on the Statue of Liberty in New York, welcoming immigrants to the United States. The US Open grand slam tennis tournament released its tickets to the public several weeks ago, and for the first time offered fans on Facebook the opportunity to purchase tickets a day before anyone else. Unfortunately, not only did they neglect to stipulate that this offer was only available to American buyers, they also had more broader problems with their system that day, creating an enormous backlash of ill will seen on Facebook. On Twitter, the US Open official account kept having to explain itself.
Providing fans with the tickets they want is a hard business. Someone will always be disappointed. And credit should be given to the organisers for trying to do something innovative and rewarding. However, thinking that the reach of the US Open does not extend beyond the nation’s boundaries was a massive, massive mistake in today’s world. They really lost a lot of their brand equity and trust that day.
As with every summer, the tennis season kicks into high gear with the French Open (aka Roland Garros) in Paris in May, and the Championships at the All England Club (aka Wimbledon) just two weeks later. Brand Republic today published their list of the 10 Best Tennis ads. The sport’s popularity pales in comparison to other pursuits in the UK, and questions always abound at this time of the year as to the country’s woeful showing at the majors. It’s an especially sore point when one looks at recent successes in golf.
Demand for tickets however at the four annual Grand Slams has never been higher. Getting a seat at such events then is a tough ask. Recently, the French Open began making tickets available online for direct purchase. This included being able to select specific days, courts and seats. Of course, having such an easy route meant that there were one or two people who had the same idea as Zeitgeist. Even accessing the website on the stroke of the hour the tickets became available put him behind 3,560 other eager tennis fans (see picture at end of article). Prima facie then this democratisation of ticket availability – rather than having a lottery and corporate hoardings – is a good thing. From a practical perspective however, does it make sense to do it this way? Can or should there be priorities given, based not just on how much people are willing to pay for tickets? Why not give those who actually play the sport more of a priority, or using Foursquare, see how many other tennis tournaments people have attended and judge their passion for tennis based on that. Can they have ticket giveaways to those who “like” Nadal, Federer, etc. on Facebook? It’s a thorny issue; perhaps the route the French Open has taken is the least worst option.
All the slams provide diverting iPhone apps too. However, if you’re going to the effort of providing a service, better make sure it works. Zeitgeist was presented with the below image on their phone while sitting on Court 1 at Wimbledon on Monday, June 20th.
Hermès leads the pack in luxury branding both on and offline.
Having recently pushed back against conglomerate LVMH‘s significant stock purchase of the company, Hermès has been pushing further with a marketing strategy that includes digital, retail environments and experiential.
Though the company may be family-run and known for it’s dedication to tradition, digitally the brand is very modern, with great banner ads appearing in The New York Times and The Economist websites. As well as a great Facebook presence, the official website has for years been an exemplar of how to market luxury wares online. One section of the website takes the user to a simple e-commerce section where a range of accessories for both men and women can be purchased, as well as the obligatory store locator, etc. The other half of the site offers a full immersion into the brand. Some permanent sections allow you to print off your own Kelly bag, to cut and make yourself. Recently, for the launch of a new fragrance inspired by India, the brand had a special film made playing on themes of Indian folklore and mythology, made as a play performed with shadow puppets, which some kind soul has since very kindly uploaded to YouTube, here.
In the offline world, aside from an entirely new brand being created for shoppers in China, in the UK the brand has begun advertising outdoors for the first time. While previously print ads and outdoor ads may have been seen for Hermès’ latest perfume, this is the first time Zeitgeist can ever remember seeing an ad for the brand itself adorning two bus stops in South Kensington. In the last week, the brand has also opened its first store on the famed Left Bank of Paris, built as much to accommodate locals as it is those keen Sino-shoppers. Built on the site of an old swimming pool, the site is by no means a facsimile of the Faubourg store, reflecting instead a more edgy identity. Scores of pictures of the new store can be found here.
Speaking of stores and Kelly bags, Selfridge’s, that bastion of capitalism located on London’s Oxford Street, recently unveiled a gigantic Kelly bag. Called the Kellydoscope, it stands at fifteen times the size of a regular bag. It’s a fun experiential installation by playful brand that could otherwise, given its heritage, risk seeming staid. To add to its hip quotient, Hermès over the summer opened a pop-up store in East London, promoting its scarves. The store, J’aime mon carré, has closed now but reopens Friday until December 23rd in the similarly gentrified-but-cool area of Notting Hill. If that weren’t enough, it has thrown in a skateboarding video too.
In the wake of New York Fashion Week, Mashable ran an interesting article on the fashion industry’s relationship with social media. Today, Chanel, not content with their formidable iPhone app, which puts it’s competitors’ apps such as Gucci and Dior to shame, confirmed they will be offering some of their products online.
Chanel sells amongst the most expensive ready-to-wear collections of any luxury label, with a beautiful raincoat for example costing well over £4,000. Other brands, such as Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent, already offer e-commerce functionality, it just remains to be seen whether Coco’s company can do something special with it. With e-tailers Luisaviaroma.com and Yoox.com already well-established, it will be interesting to see if online shoppers balk at the high markups that might seem more justified in the retail environment of the brand’s flagship store on Avenue Montaigne, especially in a recession. Brand Republic has more.