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Serve up an etail exclusive

If luxury retailers want to woo customers with the same level of service online as in their stores, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery

When you enter a luxury store, the senses are enlivened by opulent sights, enticing aromas and tactile treats, while your ego is massaged by attentive assistants. But how can high-end fashion retailers replicate such experiences online?

In fact, they should not try to mimic the in-store experience, but rather extend and enhance it. As web technology advances, so options for luxury etailers to improve customers’ online experiences grow - from advanced mechanisms to showcase products, to new capabilities to deliver a better service that is personal to the shopper.

Fadi Shuman is co-founder of web design agency Pod1, which has created sites for the likes of premium footwear retailer Kurt Geiger, contemporary chain Reiss and designer mini chain Matches. He says: “The best way a luxury brand can have the same impact online as it does offline is by creating something special and unique that resonates with the customer and offers a level of interactivity rather than being merely a static storefront. There’s no exact formula because every brand is unique. It’s about standing out from the crowd.”

At its most basic level, an etail site must allow customers to examine and buy product. Even shoppers browsing in store will expect to be able to look at product details and make purchases later via the website. And for luxury goods, a standard online shopping cart will just not cut it. Being able to look at products in detail might mean using 360-degree views which customers can zoom and rotate, although these aren’t always necessary. Lee Friend, chief executive of ecommerce fashion photography provider Fashshot, says: “For example, if you’re selling high-end men’s suits you’d want to show details of the cuff, stitching and inside pocket quality. Generally, front and back shots plus two or three detailed shots is a good formula. Rotating views have their place for things like bags and footwear, but they add to the cost of a site and in the current economic climate that’s a key consideration.”

Words, too, are important. Shuman says: “Many websites have generic descriptions for items costing hundreds or even thousands of pounds. If I’m buying, say, a high-cost luxury bag, I want to read about the inspiration behind it, the pattern, the style, the smell, how I can look after it and so on - as opposed to a single line saying ‘51cm x 21cm, leather goods bag’.”

Luxury retailers can give customers more than the usual 360-degree views and detailed descriptions by offering to personalise products, a strategy being used by handbag brand Anya Hindmarch [see box].

Few have yet gone down this route, so there are real opportunities for differentiation, although doing so involves fairly major investment since retailers need to integrate ecommerce systems with production processes. “These features have boosted traffic considerably,” says Rosie Atallah, marketing manager of ecommerce specialist Docdata. “They create a unique buzz that keeps customers coming back.”

Personal touch

But perhaps the area with the greatest potential to gain competitive edge is in using the web to deliver a more personal, one-to-one service. Shuman says: “Having a button on your site where customers can initiate a telephone call or a text chat with a sales assistant is one way of doing that. Giving them the option to initiate a webcam conversation in real time, though, might be a more ‘luxury’ way of doing things.”

US personal service technology specialist Retaligent works with brands such as Harrods, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Chief executive Bryan Amaral says: “We have a whole suite of applications that give retailers options to personalise customer service via multiple channels. For example, customers can tag items of interest which are then shared with a sales associate who can follow it up with them. Systems can also tell when a customer is browsing a site and notify an assistant in real time who can approach them while they’re still online.”

Yet building better relationships with customers online need not mean expensive investments in technology. Many luxury fashion brands will find that their customers increasingly use social networks including Twitter and Facebook. Having a presence on these networks - and somebody whose job it is to join in (and initiate) conversations with existing and potential customers - is a relatively low-cost way of broadening your reach, improving personal service and building better customer relationships.

Ironically, it is lower-end online start-ups who are leading the way here. Glasses Direct, an online retailer of low-cost fashion specs, for example, uses social networking as an adjunct to its website, connecting directly with customers, soliciting feedback and providing after-sales support. Indeed, if the trend catches on, what we regard as luxury online service today may be merely tomorrow’s bog standard.

DIY at Anya Hindmarch

Handbag brand Anya Hindmarch’s website, created and maintained by ecommerce specialist Docdata, lets customers personalise bags and gives them access to VIP events and special offers. Docdata marketing manager Rosie Atallah says: “In the luxury market, the personalisation element is a big coup.

Customers can upload their own photos and inscriptions and make a bespoke bag.” Returning customers gain access to VIP areas of the site and are sent discounts and invited to special events. Atallah adds: “The luxury sector is about making people feel special and the site helps to build the brand and its relationships with customers. It was a fairly big investment, but Anya Hindmarch is reaping the rewards.”

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