The rising popularity of high-end e-tailers such as the newly merged Net-A-Porter and Yoox has sparked a transformation among institutional luxury retailers. With the convenience, discretion and competitive pricing of online shopping drawing affluent customers away from brick-and-mortar stores, traditional multibrand retailers are reinventing themselves with personalised services and creative retail concepts to maintain their appeal.
"As successful as e-commerce is - and [which] we are advocates of - there are many sensory elements in a retail experience that can only be achieved through physical interaction," says Andrew Keith, president of Lane Crawford and Joyce. "The importance of brick-and-mortar lies in our human nature of requiring physical interaction."
This sentiment is reflected in a Harris Poll of 2,250 American adults conducted in December 2013, which found that about 70 per cent had engaged in "reverse showroom" shopping in which consumers go online to do their product research but complete their purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. And a recent report by Business Insider indicates that traditional retailers have begun to identify and capitalise on this trend.
Made-to-measure service is among the strategies to enhance in-store interactions and the shopping experience at prestigious high-end retailers such as Harrods in London, Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. The service was initially launched for menswear, appealing to customers who covet bespoke suits, jackets and shirts. Luxury brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Lanvin and Canali have flown in master tailors to do the fittings and consult with local customers. This practice is growing for womenswear too.
Harrods opened its Superbrands floor in July, featuring exclusive collections from luxury brands which highlight customisation and craftsmanship. British couturier Ralph & Russo, for example, opened its first retail and showroom concept that allows customers to browse its archives and commission unique designs.
"By including a made-to-measure element in our Superbrands department, we are offering our customers the chance to see and own something that is exclusive and tailored to their tastes," says Helen David, fashion director of womenswear, accessories, fine jewellery and childrenswear at Harrods. "Superbrands, as a department, is all about the luxury, elegance and fine craftsmanship behind our womenswear and accessories."
Lane Crawford unveiled its Next Generation concept at its flagship store in Central's IFC Mall in July as well, with dedicated space for made-to-measure services featuring high-end emerging womenswear designers such as Dice Kayek, Rosie Assoulin and Delpozo Bridal.
Luxury retailers are now linking their customers with top maisons and couturiers that have the know-how and capacity to offer the type of highly personalised services once limited to salons and ateliers on London's Saville Row or Paris' Avenue Montaigne.
"We started made-to-measure services because we believe it's the perfect idea of true luxury," says Joanna Gunn, chief brand officer of Lane Crawford. "[It's] the ability to make something personal with the finest materials and fashion houses from around the world. [Made-to-measure] is a sensory experience - the handling of textiles, meticulous stitching and the fit against the body are all significant upgrades."
High-end maisons, meanwhile, are eager to get on board with the multibrand retailers' strategic collaborations in order to embrace the personalisation trend and demonstrate their savoir faire to targeted customers.
"We have found that luxury brands are enthusiastic [about showcasing] their made-to-measure and customisation elements," says Harrods' David. "It's a current trend in the luxury industry and one that suits our experienced and well-travelled customers."
Lane Crawford, which celebrates its 165th anniversary this year, features a slew of menswear labels including Isaia, Armani Collezioni and Lardini in its made-to-order programme that started last month and runs until October 14. Principal tailors from each of the maisons are meeting with local customers to conduct personal fittings. The process of creating a suit can take several weeks or months, from initial consultation to delivery.
Brands such as Valentino, Prada, Alfred Dunhill, Louis Vuitton and Fendi are also helping to enhance in-store experiences with new offerings such as personalisation services, retrospective exhibitions and savoir faire demonstrations.
Valentino CEO Stefano Sassi says the stores' online and offline platforms should complement each other. "Through digital platforms, we are opening new ways to communicate with our customers. Still, [the services] available in-store are especially crucial."
Services that highlight personalisation and attention to detail cater especially to high-calibre customers who covet that extra edge of sophistication. "Every season, the made-to-measure programme surprises us, from customers' engagement and excitement as they learn more about the product and try new and interesting fabrics, to new brands that offer unique services to allow luxury personalisation," Gunn says.
Personalisation services at these retailers are going beyond product offerings to transform the shopping experience. At Bergdorf Goodman, personal shopper Betty Halbreich had a legendary career choosing ensembles for rich and famous clients including Gwyneth Paltrow, Sharon Stone and Julia Roberts. Now, Bergdorf and other luxury retailers regularly offer personal style consultants to assist jet-setting customers.
"We've noticed in our market research that some Hong Kong clients have built strong ties with personal shoppers at overseas luxury retailers such as Bergdorf and Harrods," says Aude Bousser, founder of luxury branding and consultancy firm LBB Asia.
"While e-commerce has certainly changed the luxury market landscape, it cannot replace the experience of shopping in store," David adds. "Customers can see stunning pieces - many of which are one-of-a-kind and exclusive to Harrods, as well as experience a level of customer service and attention that's not part of the e-commerce environment. That's what makes luxury shopping truly luxurious."
With their long-established network and relationships with high-end brands, luxury retailers can also devise distinctive shopping concepts to enhance the in-store experience. Joyce, for example, recently collaborated with the famous vintage shop Byronesque to present rare pieces from Chanel, Alaia, Comme des Garcons, Maison Martin Margiela and Issey Miyake as part of a shoppable exhibition titled Histoires. The vintage pieces were juxtaposed with the latest fashion arrivals for the autumn-winter season.
"The idea behind Histoires was to give accessibility to what is typically untouchable and only admired from a distance in fashion exhibitions," Keith says.
"We want to broaden the understanding of high fashion beyond what you traditionally see in fashion retail."
The launch of personalised services and innovative retail concepts reflect a renewed focus on the local market.
Many luxury retailers have also launched e-commerce portals to complement their offline sales. Their brick-and-mortar establishments are adapting to facilitate sales from online to offline, and vice versa.
Montblanc CEO Jerome Lambert stresses the importance of integrating the digital element into luxury brands. "Our shops are changing. We developed e-commerce in 2014, and it is an interesting dimension that enhances one's perception of the maison and of the products. We have 500 brick-and-mortar shops, so we can very well connect the two worlds."