Luxury Retail: Turning Affluent Austerity into Retail Prosperity

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\"RRI got a call earlier this month from a freelance reporter who follows my beat – research on the affluent consumers and the luxury market. As she walked through the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle on her way to the subway at midday, she found the halls and high-end boutiques unexpectedly empty. The only store seeming to do any business was Whole Foods. She wanted to know, “What’s up?”

I shared a similar experience visiting the Tysons Galleria, in McLean, Virginia, located in one of the nation’s highest-income counties. Walking through the mall on a weeknight, there was a remarkable lack of customers. The most active shop in the whole place that evening was the Starbucks café.

Or just visit New York’s Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue. While there is plenty of foot traffic, peek inside the upscale boutiques and you’ll generally find more sales clerks than paying customers. And while Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman still draw the crowds, evidence is that many of the guests are lookers or searching out bargains on the marked-down racks. The buyers are largely rich foreigners, not those affluent natives who, back in the prerecession luxury glory days of 2005 and 2006, used to fill the place. Where are the prosperous, luxury-inclined American customers? MIA – missing in action!

A new mood of austerity is taking hold among American affluents.

Every three months our company, Unity Marketing, conducts a survey among shoppers at the top end of the income spectrum to track their spending and shopping behavior on high-end/luxury goods and services. We measure their financial perspective and attitudes toward their future prospects. By taking affluent consumers’ pulse on five key measures of consumer confidence, we calculate the LCI (Luxury Consumption Index) which is a forward-looking indicator or predictor of affluents’ willingness to indulge in purchases of high-end goods and services. In our latest survey, entitled “How Affluents Shop,” conducted in early April, the LCI dropped sharply back to a level not seen since the depths of the recession in late 2008 and early 2009. Our tracking data shows that in 2010 and 2011 affluents went through a recovery period where so-called pent-up demand boosted affluent spending on luxury. But since 2012 or so, spending has been slowing as affluent consumers’ confidence has taken a downward turn.

The best way to describe the new attitude that the affluents revealed in the most recent survey is a “mood of austerity.” I don’t read a doom-and-gloom scenario yet, but the affluents tell us they see their financial status neither rising nor falling in the immediate future. As a result, they are in a holding pattern with 61% of the more than 1,400 affluent consumers surveyed saying they expect their level of spending on luxury goods and services to remain the same over the next 12 months and 22% expect their spending to drop, leaving a scant 16% willing to indulge more in high-end purchases.

In retail, optimism can lead to complacency, while wary pessimism brings action.

Retailers by nature are an optimistic bunch, but reading the current tea leaves in a characteristically optimistic way would be a mistake, especially given the recent news about retail sales from the Commerce Department. There simply isn’t much cause for optimism or describing the current state of luxury retail as a glass half-full. Blind-eyed optimism means luxury retailers could waste precious time, like they did back in 2007 and 2008, before taking proactive measures to create demand and grow sales. On the other hand, there are no downsides to assuming a glass half-empty approach with its call to action to focus on marketing, sales and service to build engagement with the reluctant, but still well-moneyed, affluent. The fact is, while the middle-class, middle-income consumer segment remains hard hit by the losses to income and wealth brought about during the recession, the affluent have largely regained spending power, but they certainly haven’t forgotten what happened and haven’t returned to their free-spending ways.

What the anecdotal evidence from recent “walk-abouts” in luxury retail show is that too many retailers are complacent and going about business as usual because of a belief that things will only get better with a little more time, or improved weather, or the next new product launch, or the next season’s styles. But with 20-plus years in consumer research, including more than 10 years focused on the affluents, it’s safe to say there has been a fundamental shift in the values that underlie the affluents’ consumer confidence. They bring a new set of values to measure the cost-benefits of making a luxury, high-end purchase, with the result, all too often, that the purchase comes up short.

Create compelling experiences that entice the affluents to indulge and spend.

There are some ideas that upscale retailers can consider to help turn the growing tide of affluent austerity into business prosperity through these challenging times.

Don’t force your customers to be window shoppers on the Internet. Some of the most compelling evidence for the need to have a robust website with full-tilt ecommerce capability comes from the recent “How Affluents Shop” survey. On average, one-third of affluents made their most recent luxury purchases online across 12 different types of shopping experiences. So, for example, 38% of affluents made their last purchase with a luxury-department store (e.g. Saks, Nordstrom, Neiman, Bloomingdale’s) online and 36% interacted most recently with a clothing and/or fashion boutique online. But the single highest incidence where online was used for the most recent purchase (45%) was found among luxury-branded boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci and others. That means brands like Chanel or Dior that offer nothing, or only a narrow range, online is missing out on an important avenue to reach potential customers. Forcing their customers into the store to buy isn’t going to cut it anymore. They need to join new online entrants like Prada and Piaget who finally entered the 21st century with their websites.

Create shopping experiences to entice customers away from their computers and back into the store.

Across the board, affluents shop to meet a specific need, which the Internet satisfies to perfection, as 56% of affluent shoppers agreed with the statement, “Whenever I can, I shop online.” That means affluents visit the physical store for other reasons, such as recreation or inspiration to find out what is new and trendy. The retail store must become a destination for fun and discovery. It needs to be a place where people want to spend time – and the more time the better, since all shopper research shows that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money spent shopping with the time invested in the store. So the store must become theatre and entertainment, not overly designed tombs with snooty or indifferent sales clerks. While we can look to sponsored store events as a means to create an experience, like the now-defunct Fashion Night Out which was all spectacle, but little substance delivered to the participating retailers, luxury retailers need to think of their space as a stage and create experiences day-in, day-out for their customers. That means training staff to participate with the customers in the fun and joy of shopping. It means thinking of the retail staff’s role as hosts at a wonderful, exciting party just for the customer. The excitement can be contagious and make the in-store experience an adventure. Today’s retailers can still take a lesson from great retailers from the past, like Harry Selfridge, brought to life in the PBS Masterpiece series. Watch Mr. Selfridge to be reminded of how masterful retail performance transcends time.

Encourage high levels of customer involvement and interaction.

As retailers we want – we need – the customer to engage all their senses in the store. We want to encourage shoppers to touch, taste, smell, feel, try on and participate with the store staff and merchandise. Curiosity is a powerful way to create such engagement. That’s one of the secrets behind eyewear brand Warby Parker’s quantum leap from online etailer to a touch-and-feel customer experience. As a brand named for characters from author Jack Kerouac who “inspired a generation to take a road less traveled and to see the world through a different lens,” Warby Parker turned an old yellow school bus into a traveling showroom that they parked in prominent locations where people couldn’t help but notice. The Class Trip, as the program was called, traveled the country taking the Warby Parker brand experience to the customers. The trip was originally planned for six months, but success drove them to extend the trip for a year. While the trip has now concluded, the Warby Parker blog invites guests to engage with the brand “to see, to read, to buy, to meet, to do.”

Create an environment that is accessible, nonexclusive and free from pretentions.

Too many luxury brands put up walls that keep qualified shoppers out. And thanks to a provocatively titled, but otherwise superficial study coming out this fall in the Journal of Consumer Research from professors Darren Dahl and Morgan Ward entitled, “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increasing Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for a Brand,” luxury brands are likely to continue to think that inaccessibility, exclusivity and being pretentious are effective retailing strategies. The keyword here is “aspiring” and the affluents willing and able to drop serious money in a luxury boutique generally aren’t described as aspirational. Aspiration is not part of their DNA; rather they are looking for inspiration to spend. The truly affluent are confident people who don’t need conspicuous consumption or status symbols to proclaim their wealth. They are used to five-star service and expect absolute professionalism from service personnel no matter whether they are dressed to the nines or come shopping in sweat pants and sneakers. This is a lesson that the new president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Marigay McKee, stressed in a recent master class she hosted at the Manhattan campus of Glasgow Caledonian University. In her quintessentially British fashion, she stressed the need for those in the “Business of Luxury” to show hospitality. She said, “Let’s try to welcome people. Meet and Greet. First impressions really count.”

In closing, good retailing is good retailing no matter what the merchandise costs. It is just at the luxury, high-end level, it takes a bit more work today to inspire the well-heeled to indulge when so many really good products and attractive styles are widely available at much more affordable price points. Luxury brands don’t have a monopoly on good quality anymore. In the current political climate where the top 1% is demonized and the evils of income inequality are part of many politicians’ stump speeches, luxury retailers need to be at the top of their game. There is no room today for complacency or business as usual. Luxury retailers must pull out all the stops to turn the new mood of affluent austerity into business prosperity.



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