The Online Luxury Retail Experience

When the Internet opened to the average Joe over 20 years ago, it’s doubtful anyone dreamed the number of devices connected to the Internet would surpass that of people on Earth in 2008. The extent to which the Internet would shift the basic ways we function as a society, both online and off, was simply incomprehensible.

Take, for example, the act of shopping. The sheer convenience offered by selling goods online, the countless purchase barriers – proximity, availability and ease of procurement – stripped away with one click.

As with near-everything in life, there are improvements to be had. But the advent of online shopping poses the largest disruption to the luxury-goods industry since the first department store opened in the 19th century. Does the value of, say, a Gucci bag, remain the same if it’s showcased with the same flash design as any other?

Members-only fashion sites like the Gilt Groupe, Ruelala and Vaunte.com, have tried to answer the call by offering online destinations to snag everything from high-end designer and boutique labels to consignments from New York socialites whenever the urge to purchase strikes. Other online shops offer everything from curated selections – hand-picked by your own personal cyber stylist, of course – to flash sales or standard full-priced luxury fashion.

Yet, with market saturation eminent for these once groundbreaking ‘exclusive’ luxury apparel shops, one company in particular has been leading the charge to establish a virtual presence for iconic luxury brands: Yoox. After 12 years, this NY-based company is not only one of the largest fashion shopping sites, offering both discounted and full-price products, but it also powers 30 luxury fashion houses including Dolce & Gabbana and Armani. Yoox was also recently awarded the online shopping sites of the top brands of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR) which includes Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. If the venture is successful, Gucci may be added to the suite.

According to the PPR e-Business VP, Federico Barbieri, the strategy behind the partnership is to create real online luxury experiences and expand brand accessibility.

This begs two questions.

First, can a true luxury experience be created online? It may be more convenient to purchase your goods online – avoid lines, sales associates and the ‘hassle’ of leaving your home – but the online experience of perusing the product line, adding an item to your cart, and completing your purchase is essentially the same for Dolce & Gabbana as it is for Target. The Internet will never let you try out clothing on the spot or tailor the piece to fit your body. Online shopping removes customer interaction with the brand ambassadors and the physical product.

Privately owned Chanel has notably refrained from offering their clothing and accessories for purchase online. In an interview with The Business of Fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion, spoke of the decision.

“It’s a strategic choice. It’s a choice to say, ‘Guys, you can see whatever you want on the internet, but we want you to come to the boutique, because we feel that in the boutique we can give you the right understanding of the brand.’…But whatever we do, at the end of the day, our goal is to make people come to the boutique: to touch, see and try on the clothes and be exposed to our accessories.”

Second, will increased availability lower the value of luxury brands? Barbieri doesn’t think so.

“Because our brands are global, we need online flagship stores to be accessible all over the world. It is no longer a question of ’when‘, but rather ’how‘ we embrace the digital space through innovative and original solutions to create real online luxury experiences for the customers of our brands, instead of having just good e-commerce stores.”

These iconic luxury fashion houses have built their brand identities over hundreds of years. The power is in the established name, superior quality, exclusivity and above all, the recognizable visual identity of the product – the distinct pattern, feel and shape of the piece. Offering the product online in response to market needs will increase the reach of the product. Customers may complete their purchase online and have it delivered to their doorstep, as long as they’re willing to forgo the in-store experience.

Our generation’s innovative nature and ability to create groundbreaking technology cannot be doubted. It’s human nature to choose the path of least resistance and in the case of shopping, the path is clearly paved by e-commerce. Luxury fashion houses must rise to the occasion and create a truly distinctive online customer experience to stand out among the millions of other websites and accommodate our thirst for modern convenience.

the author

Heidi Griffith