The Luxury story in the face of Covid-19 (Part II)
“How can I be of assistance today, Sir?”
This typical front-of-store welcome has become synonymous with the luxury brand industry, setting the scene for the personal care and attention to follow. It suggests no request will be too much trouble and customer satisfaction is paramount to the company’s ethos.
It suggests no request will be too much trouble and customer satisfaction is paramount to the company’s ethos. VIP treatment; personal calls when a limited item is in stock; the one-to-one service where expert stylists help you pick out a whole new wardrobe: luxury brands have always been a step ahead when it comes to the personalised customer experience. But what happens when these face-to-face services are no longer available to these brands? In Part 2 of our Luxury series, we explore how businesses in this space have navigated the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and how digital is the key to their future (Read Part 1 here).
Personal attention and experiences, digital style
If the customers aren’t allowed in, or can’t make it to a physical store, what’s the solution? Bring the store to the customer. While this has be done to some extent with digital platforms being an extension of the brick and mortar store, virtual appointments take this another step further. During the early months of the pandemic and with physical stores forced to shut, many “switched-on” luxury brand retailers turned to appointment scheduling technology to give customers the chance to book appointments and talk to experts on the phone or on video. In May, following its early lockdown home delivery success and ‘buy now pay later’ payment solutions with Redbox partner Klarna, Brompton Bicycles launched its Live In-Store Expert operation. This browser-based live video call service allowed customers to talk and connect with staff at physical retail stores.
Part of the brand’s past success was built on the in-store experience where customers were able to talk to knowledgeable staff who could help them find the right bike for their needs. With thousands of pounds being spent on some two-wheeled machines, being able to see them in action, learn how quickly they can be folded for accessibility on the commute, or to understand frame size in relation to rider height, are hugely important factors.
The new Brompton initiative gave customers the chance to speak to and watch experts demonstrate all of the latest bikes, clothing and accessories, as well as get personal, tailored advice on the spot. Staff, meanwhile, were only able to hear customers, rather than see them, to protect their privacy. Although production initially dropped as some suppliers shut down, initiatives such as this helped sales soar, with web traffic up by 62 per cent and five times as many online sales. In June, after the UK’s first lockdown had ended but some restrictions were kept in place, luxury department store Selfridges launched its own personal shopping appointments for fashion or beauty, via video calls.
Digital services included virtual gift advice and Instagram beauty tutorials, while video-enabled personal shopping ensured ‘regular’ customers would still be able to connect further with the brand and receive the care and attention to which they were accustomed. Global fashion brand Gucci began offering personalised virtual experiences for customers, giving them a virtual trip to a faux luxury store where staff livestream from a replica showroom and bring items to screen for them to look at.
The Gucci virtual experience. Source : voguebusiness.com
Connection to these services vary from brand-to-brand. Customers can sign-up for virtual appointments through different channels such as social, chat, website, app, or switchboard, usually picking a time that suits them, sometimes with questions about what services they are interested in ahead of time. They will often receive a reminder in the form of text or email. When on their call, staff can supervise like they would in store, before offering assistance with their online order.
With customers clearly enjoying these digital interactions with their favourite luxury brands and companies spending large amounts of money on getting the technology and services right, expect them to continue after lockdown ends. While it won’t take away from the real face-to-face personal experiences and attention, many customers like the convenience of being able to make these connections from anywhere at any time. Luxury brands should take these ideas onboard and invest in the technology and training of staff to ensure they get it right – and are not left behind as the digital landscape continues to evolve at pace.
Thinking outside the box: apps, to red carpet treatment
Few sectors have been as hard hit as the travel industry since the pandemic started, with the UN predicting losses of up to £3.3trillion (€3.7 trillion) over the past year. But luxury travel providers have been among the quickest to turn to digital or think outside the box in a bid to get things moving again. Christian Clerc, president of The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts says he has always stood by the philosophy that, “every interaction with a guest is an opportunity”.
But with real face-to-face connections becoming more difficult or even impossible in some countries, the company has ramped up its digital offerings and ensured customers have an even wider selection of choices to enhance their experiences. Firstly, the company was quick to take note of the growing remote working trend and the obstacles facing customers who want short holidays. Guests who want to extend their stay to more than a month have been offered a host of additional benefits, as well as a designated concierge to ensure they are not only looked after, but stay as safe as possible.
The Four Seasons Mobile App and Chat replaces a real hotel guide and allows customers to keep physical interactions with staff to a minimum, giving them the ability to make and manage reservations, sort airport transfers, arrange room service and make housekeeping requests all from their phone. If required, a new Four Seasons Private Jet Experience can take customers to their destination, with a full onboard team including chef and physician. For added peace of mind, the plane’s interior is equipped with a state-of-the-art hospital grade air filtration system that renews the cabin air every two to three minutes and removes almost 100percent of particles, bacteria and viruses.
The application of Four Seasons. Source : fourseasons.com
The innovation and enterprise showed by the brand is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a luxury experience. Taking away the need for physical face-to-face communication through apps and digital means is the very minimum brands should be facilitating. Finding other solutions to go the extra mile and add real value for both loyal and new customers is more important than ever.
The evolving world of luxury content
The luxury market has long been associated with heritage, tradition and a certain mystique that helps create an aspirational appeal. But 2020 was the year that the industry went mainstream with some of its content, as online gaming, virtual products and different social media strategies were explored. Chinese consumers accounted for 90 percent of the global luxury market growth in 2019, according to Bain. But with the pandemic stopping the usual flow of foreign travel and slowing spending in China itself, luxury brands were quick to open up their market to different demographics.
Lockdowns and store closures around the world also forced brands to find different ways to showcase their products and market themselves. Lucy Yeomans, former editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, launched gaming app Drest at the end of 2019, making players fashion editors. Gamers are given selections of outfits and set challenges such as dressing models with other players judging the look. Many of the clothes are also available to buy and luxury brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney and Prada have been involved.
Dutch start-up The Fabricant, artist Johanna Jaskowska and company Dapper Labs also sold a digital dress for $9,500 on the blockchain in 2019 – with the creators tailoring it for the buyer without the item ever being ‘physical.’ With the huge success and money involved in Esports, where online teams and athletes compete for millions and boast huge armies of followers, digital worlds are commanding and generating their own wealth. Last year Gucci released its own platform to let users design virtual footwear and try them on using augmented reality, with the company believing that luxury fashion has to seamlessly integrate with the digital in order to evolve.
With over 2billion gamers worldwide, it comes as no surprise to find out that the fashion brand is even designing products with games and virtual realities in mind - with the thinking they could work as a marketing tool but also have value as digital goods on their own. “The virtual world is creating its own economy,” Gucci CMO told Fast Company. “The worlds of fashion and gaming are colliding. We’re approaching gaming with a sense of experimentation, because this will put us in a good position to be ahead of the trends when they become ingrained.” Louis Vuitton and Estee Lauder were among other major luxury brands to launch games to promote their goods and new launches.
Meanwhile, fashion outlets such as Prada and Saint Laurent were a few of many that explored streaming and content creation on social media channels aimed at younger audiences such as SnapChat and TikTok. Luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter also began connecting with customers via WhatsApp if they were considered an EIP - or Extremely Important Person. Personal shoppers from the company communicate with customers who make the grade and showcase new products over the messaging app. All of these examples show the growing importance of connecting with customers through the myriad of channels they use on a day-to-day basis. Many luxury brands understand that digital growth and innovation is vital.
The luxury industry – the key to survival
As summed up in Part I of this two-part series, the luxury sector is at a pivotal point in its evolution. Before COVID-19, many brands were in the process of making major changes to their business strategies in light of the growing tech-savvy consumer. While heritage and tradition are still vitally important ingredients to the industry, companies appreciate the need to adapt to multi-channel methods of communication and embrace the Millennial ‘mottos’ of convenience and sustainability.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to accelerate these plans and look even more closely at their digital operations. It is not enough for brands to survive and hope the world of lockdowns quickly fade away. To push on, brands must explore and invest in digital from inside and out, embrace technology and innovation and adjust their strategies to be prepared for all eventualities. It is no longer enough to sell through online and physical stores, the successful luxury brands are looking into multiple digital channels - and new ways of making content that enhances consumer experiences in each.
From virtual appointments to apps and chat platforms, luxury brands must find ways to communicate and add value to the customer. Face-to-face personal experiences and assistance have gone digital and are likely to continue down this route long after the pandemic has been consigned to history. Social media platforms were once just a means to communicate with customers, but have quickly become key avenues to sell on too. In the blink of an eye, even the ways of selling on these platforms is rapidly evolving.
Meanwhile, there are whole new worlds being created virtually where products that don’t exist in a physical sense are of value – with the platforms themselves becoming essential marketing tools to reach vast quantities of new consumers. In all these examples, digital is the name of the game. Brands must not just pay lip-service to its importance, but embrace and explore every essence of its being to survive, thrive and prosper or be quickly left behind.
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