Lux­ury ver­sion of curb­side pickup has ar­rived

Bloom­ing­dale’s, Neiman Marcus, oth­ers try it out

National Post (National Edition) - - FINANCIAL POST - DREW HUTCHINSON

To sur­vive COVID-19, lux­ury re­tail­ers are be­ing forced to master some­thing they’ve al­ways avoided: im­per­sonal trans­ac­tions.

The pan­demic has driven high-end U.S. re­tail­ers far from their roots of engaging shop­pers with styl­ized, per­sonal — and un­for­tu­nately, high-touch — ser­vice. Think makeup and jewelry coun­ters, per­sonal shop­pers and in-house tai­lors. Now, with con­sumers stay­ing away from pub­lic spaces, re­tail­ers like Bloom­ing­dale’s Inc. and Neiman Marcus Group Inc. are com­ing to terms with sell­ing products via FaceTime and curb­side pickup. But trans­lat­ing this into a lav­ish shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence sounds about as nat­u­ral as turn­ing a TV din­ner into five-star din­ing.

“This is a trans­for­ma­tive mo­ment” for an in­dus­try that re­sists change, said Christophe Cais, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Cus­tomer Ex­pe­ri­ence Group, a con­sul­tancy for lux­ury com­pa­nies.

Re­tail’s new re­al­ity means that around 10 per cent of phys­i­cal lux­ury stores may close world­wide in the next three years, said Deb­o­rah Aitken, a lux­ury an­a­lyst for Bloomberg Intelligen­ce. On the other hand, in­creased web sales could lead to wider marketing reach and more op­por­tu­ni­ties to tar­get likely buy­ers us­ing con­sumer data, she said. Aitken projects online sales could rise to 17 per cent of the to­tal for lux­ury at the end of 2020 — up from 12.5 per cent at the end of 2019.

Now, com­pa­nies must fig­ure out how to con­jure up their sig­na­ture at­mos­pheres, from iconic colour pal­ettes to warm smiles, when pa­trons aren’t ac­tu­ally in the build­ing. Up­ping the ante is the fact that these com­pa­nies’ cus­tomers ex­pect per­fec­tion — a Birkin shop­per in one of Cais’s fo­cus groups, for ex­am­ple, thought her bag was cheaply made when it ar­rived in six months in­stead of nine. This attitude stands in stark con­trast to the rest of re­tail, where com­pa­nies like Ama­ Inc. and Walmart Inc. have built up their ship­ping to get goods to cus­tomers as fast as pos­si­ble.

De­pend­ing on the cus­tomer, speed may also be im­por­tant for lux­ury shop­pers. But over­all, brands that have long prized per­son­al­ized ser­vice must now learn how to con­trol the user ex­pe­ri­ence from shop­pers’ first click to when the prod­uct is un­wrapped.

First off, lux­ury stores must nail down how and where their cus­tomers ac­tu­ally pre­fer to in­ter­act, Cais said. Pa­trons don’t want the ex­pe­ri­ence to feel too trans­ac­tional


or cheap. Call­ing cus­tomers to sug­gest products, for ex­am­ple, comes dan­ger­ously close to tele­mar­ket­ing. Drive-thrus and online shop­ping, mean­while, move away from lux­ury’s sig­na­ture im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

In the short term, com­pa­nies are bet­ting on video chat, which can let sales as­so­ci­ates con­nect with long­time cus­tomers who may be stay­ing away from stores. Bloom­ing­dale’s has started let­ting cus­tomers shop by FaceTime, or even by phone call or instant mes­sage. And around 20 other lux­ury shops, in­clud­ing stand­alone brands like Gucci and Valentino, are mak­ing room for dig­i­tal hand-hold­ing via video soft­ware that lets sales as­so­ci­ates track what cus­tomers are brows­ing online in real time. Shop­pers can then opt into a video call with a store-based em­ployee to get sug­ges­tions, ask ques­tions or see mer­chan­dise first-hand.

One ben­e­fit of this strat­egy is that video calls could also at­tract or help re­tain older cus­tomers who don’t know how to shop online, like one man who showed up re­cently at a Bloom­ing­dale’s curb, be­fore pa­trons were al­lowed in­side amid the lock­down, with a hand­writ­ten shop­ping list and a credit card.

Both Neiman Marcus and Bloom­ing­dale’s, as well as bou­tiques like Tif­fany & Co., also have curb­side pickup — the same ser­vice of­fered by the likes of gro­cery stores and pizza chains. The wealthy aren’t turn­ing up their noses at it. A re­cent Morning Con­sult sur­vey showed that peo­ple who make six fig­ures or more are us­ing curb­side pickup more than ever. In fact, Bloom­ing­dale’s em­ploy­ees were sur­prised by how many cus­tomers parked and re­quested a stylist or shop­per be­fore re­open­ing.

But curb­side drop off and pick up doesn’t mean just de­posit­ing a shop­ping bag in a trunk and mov­ing on. According to Charles An­der­son, Bloom­ing­dale’s di­rec­tor of stores, plenty of fi­nesse is needed.

“You have to be cau­tious and care­ful and at­tuned to how much or how lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion” cus­tomers are look­ing for, An­der­son said. “If they pop open the trunk, then place it in the trunk and say thank you and move on. If they’re look­ing to make eye con­tact and all of that good stuff, then let’s make their day.”

Years of lux­ury dogma might have evap­o­rated in a mat­ter of weeks when COVID-19 broke loose, but high-end brands re­tain some ad­van­tages, namely low-traffic stores and buy­ers with plenty of dis­pos­able in­come. They’re also bet­ter po­si­tioned to in­vest in tech­nol­ogy that could po­ten­tially save and build cus­tomer re­la­tion­ships, said Hadar Paz, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Pow­er­front, which cre­ated the re­tail-friendly video plat­form known as In­side.

But even when new soft­ware isn’t yet part of the plan, brands are still mak­ing an ef­fort to pre­serve the glam­our. In the Hamp­tons, lux­ury shoe re­tailer Jimmy Choo is vis­it­ing cus­tomers’ homes with vans of ex­clu­sive mer­chan­dise to flaunt. Jimmy Choo and oth­ers are also in­dulging newly ago­ra­pho­bic pa­trons with one-on-one, ap­point­ment-only shop­ping slots. As An­der­son from Bloom­ing­dale’s put it, its cus­tomers are crav­ing “a very hu­man mo­ment” more than ever.


Bloom­ing­dale’s in Man­hat­tan is one of sev­eral lux­ury stores of­fer­ing curb­side pickup, and many wealthy shop­pers are em­brac­ing the op­tion.

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