There's been buzz within the luxury retail world regarding the explosion of luxury houses hitting the internet. Up until 2002, most luxe brands shunned the idea of electronic commerce. They viewed the move as being "not luxurious, not exclusive, and not in line with their brand's values and history". Then a few brands stepped out, like Gucci and Neiman Marcus, and proved with solid sales figures that this wasn't a belief the consumers had.
Since then, and especially in recent months, we've seen nearly every luxury range hit the world's wide web of virtual stores. From Giorgio Armani to Gucci, Roberto Cavalli to Chanel, and Dolce & Gabbana to Dior, we're seeing more brands than Rodeo Drive.
Having worked luxury retail, I see both sides of the issue. On one hand, having a multimedia site, complete with the latest runway show, complimentary music, and photographs of key pieces, or even the entire collection can be a great way to intensify your clients' understanding of the brand, the collection, and latest offerings.
Internet sites, especially virtual shopping opportunities, also extend the reach of the brand - so clients from Tampa to Topeka to Taipei can all get their luxe fix.
On the flip side, I definitely understand the value of personal connection in luxury retail. Welcoming a client into your boutique is a sensory experience - from the scented air, to the lights, to the plush carpet, to the music and multimedia display - there's something to be said for actually holding and touching products before purchasing. If you're interested in a purse online, you have no way of knowing where exactly the bag will fall on your body - or whether or not the straps will stay on your shoulder - or if all of your necessities will fit inside - or if the closure is easy to open - or just how soft the lambskin may be - or if the colour is exactly what you are expecting. All of these can be answered when shopping in person. Now I understand you can always order and return if unsatisfied - but that costs money and time.
Additionally, electronic luxury retail definitely removes the exclusivity from luxury brands' identities. Back in the day, it used to be a big deal to own a Louis Vuitton handbag; possessing the French luxury house's signature monogram indicated you had traveled to the one of the few fashion capitals of the world. Now, with so many online retailers (and newly opened locations), the brand has lost some lustre.
There's also a huge benefit from shopping with an associate in person. They're your ticket to exclusive events, promotions, and private sales. They also are armored with immense product knowledge, understand the entire collection (and what other colours are available for that handbag you just have to have!), and can give you tips and tricks on how to best use the product. All of this you won't necessarily find online.
For me, luxury retail is more than just about selling product. It's about building a consumer-client relationship. It's about selling the story and the romance of a product. It's about instilling in your clients an air of luxury and history.
If luxury e-commerce is viewed as an extension of a boutique - a resource for clients to see new products and campaigns, and then head to their favourite boutiques to see, to touch, and to buy - that's definitely en vogue. But when the virtual world overshadows the traditional boutique experience - that's so last season.
PS - What do I think is even worse than luxury retail online? Let's just say that "luxury" and "outlet malls" do not belong in the same sentence.