A few weeks ago I was having an interesting conversation with the CEO of a well known company. He asked me “Did you notice how cheap products are not anymore aesthetically ugly?” He made me think how changes, that drastically affected the business in the last 20 years, touched so many subtle elements.
As a matter of fact, in the past, products with high price point were not only high quality but also aesthetically nicer than products at a lower price point. Cheap meant ugly products. Expensive meant elegant products. It was very easy to recognize the difference.
Today is not the same anymore. Weather you like it or not, companies like Ikea and Zara (among many others) didn’t just drastically reduce prices for decoration, fashion and home furniture. They re-designed a business concept: accessible products with a nice design.
I made a parallelism with the luxury industry and thought about how the current economy widened up the market, putting in competition companies and sectors originally very different among them. It’s not only the “cheap & chic” (luxury brand + or versus high street products). It is also luxury accessories versus smartphone or technology in general.
The dynamics of shopping are widely changing due to customer expectations. Luxury customers tend to shop in exclusive boutiques and in fast fashion stores. They shop online for different products: now even for grocery. This means that a luxury brand should not fear anymore only the competition from other luxury brands, but also from traditional brick & mortar “Store-eater” (like amazon.com). It is clear that, in order to compete with dynamic and technological competitors, it’s not enough to provide the sales associates with tablets or smart phones or put a nice touch screen in store. Something more radical must change for traditional retail.
E-commerce is just one of the threats for luxury brands.
Last week I was in Milan. I entered a typical high-street store and I was surprised by the positive treatment I received from the sales associate. I thought that just five years ago, a typical sales associate from this brand would be just there to fold garments. I found it smart. It was no accident. I felt a similar situation in other stores earlier this year. Companies with visions are thinking about the future in traditional retail: they seem to be aware that price point and style will not be not enough to survive. I cannot say that the sales associate was high skilled, elegant and sophisticated. At the same time, she tried her best to create a kind of human bond with the customer. Some questions were typically by the book. Some engagement techniques needed to be rehearsed a little more. However, I perceived a structured training and a consistent approach also when I interacted with other members of the team. There was an imprint. I was happy and surprised to see how a company that based its unique value proposition on price point was moving to customer engagement.
A few hours later I walked in a luxury store. One of those beautiful temples one can find in Montenapoleone. A nice young man came towards me with a warm greeting. I interacted with different sales associates in different sections. They all looked nice and spoke several languages. Yet, the quality of engagement was uneven. I felt like every sales person had a personal interpretation on how he/she should approach the customer and introduce the brand. I found some sales associate personally very interesting, some other less. It seemed like each person was playing a different musical score and I could not perceive any specific essence of the brand. I could have been in their store or in one of their competitors and probably feel exactly the same.
I tend not to pick on sales associates behaviors in store. I believe that the limits of who represents luxury brands in store is in the lack of vision of the brand and in the anachronistic approach to a retail business that belongs to the 90’s. Probably to the 80’s. At the same time, I could not help comparing the two stores experiences without a self-consideration. “Is the level of sales associate in mass market stores increasing? Or luxury retail is just losing ground while trying to find itself?”
Probably both assumptions are true. Fast fashion companies are thinking fast and moving faster. Luxury retail is sick. Until companies will search the answers only within KPI report analysis, without a real strategic reconsideration of the retail dynamics to create real, the song will remain the same.
Recruiting, re-organization of the stores, definition of customer centrality, role of the store manager and profile of the sales team, training and coaching, follow up activities of the retail management, career path, etc. are just a few examples of what a retail revolution might involve to survive to the eCommerce dominance. We need to move really from product centric companies to customer centric ones. And walk the talk.
I believe that the braves will take an incredible competitive advantage.