Why does the experience of luxury e-commerce never quite live up to it’s promise?
After some big-name e-commerce launches, we’ve yet to properly deliver a luxury e-commerce experience, so what can differentiate a luxury e-commerce site from any other?
What separates a luxury e-commerce store from an e-commerce store selling luxury goods?
My favourite elements are some of the touches which represent the Louis Vuitton ethos but also add fun to the shopping experience. There's the glass staircase running right across the front of the store between the façade and the interior skin - it's a work of art with LCD image generation and ever-changing artists' work.
The ten-meter high trunk wall at the entrance was inspired by those wonderful lost luggage areas in old-fashioned stations where cases pile up – they're always tatty but we've done it in a good way with wood and brass. It was great having the height and space to do it. The Bag Bar is just fun. Some shops are just lethally serious but we want people to smile. I think its fun when things are not static so the bags move to a rhythm. And the Murakami sculpture and the circling planets – they just make you laugh.
I’ve had a few emails sent to me about a paragraph I wrote in my post about e-commerce strategy, when talking about why luxury ecommerce makes me continually depressed. I wrote:
This solution would combine a feature-rich engine offering premium delivery channels, VIP recognition and services, platform flexibility that allows individual branding and customisation for each label, a product taxonomy that encourages exploration, teasing & tempting, and an interface incorporating the three rules of User Treats - Personal, Relevant & Unexpected experience events.
So I thought I would expand on some of these themes to explore what I believe to be the future of luxury e-commerce.
But firstly, I want to delve into the always fun and exciting world of accountancy.
Know Your Cost of Sale
If you’re in multichannel, then your financial controller will be working on the net margin for the various channels in which your customers can buy: Online, instore, catalogue, phone and so on. Once Cost of Goods Sold and direct overheads are taken into account, he’ll then deduct the cost of selling - so marketing, infrastructure, staffing, fulfillment etc.
Have a little word with your finance team and compare the cost of sale instore with the cost of sale online.
Yowsa. That’s a big difference.
However in the world of luxury e-commerce, having this wide gap between what's willing to be spent on a physical presence and on a virtual presence is what’s holding the sector back.
Look and Feel
The new Louis Vuitton Maison on New Bond Street that opened last Friday. The quote that opened this article is from Peter Marino, its architect. What struck my mind as I read this, was that none of the elements he described has a direct impact on the ability for the shop to sell its wares. What he had designed was experiential shopping.
If you haven’t had a look around, then please do so. The new Maison is part store, part gallery, part library. We’ll go into the other parts of the store later, but the store itself is gleaming. The finest materials have been used, every space is finely delineated and themed. Walkways glow and every element exudes both deep thought, historical provenance and artistic flair.
Now, I’ve been known to throw a diva strop at my site designers when a single field isn’t correctly aligned, so I get depressed every time I visit a supposedly luxury e-commerce site, and find empty product categories, pages not loading (I’m looking at you louisvuitton.com), horrific reliances upon Flash and video, inexpertly grafted onto the most dull uninspiring checkouts known to mankind.
Why does this happen?
Let’s face it, e-commerce departments are obsessed with two things: Merchandising and Technology. As I’ve said in previous posts, ecommerce departments are normally made up of an unholy alliance between Retail floor managers and IT bods. Their budget is based on the practicality of launching the store; how much is the platform, how much to design the interface, how much to staff the Helpdesk (if you’re lucky), how much to fulfill orders.
Because of this, the offering they put out to the world rarely has artistic merit, for all it’s video and funky buttons, the actual experience of shopping is a plodding one: Find the product, look at details, add to basket, check out. Yawn. Go to bed.
This has to change.
The basics, the platform, the IA, the design, should be a given. Everything MUST be polished to a glittering sheen - but again, that should be a given. The purpose of this post is to see what can be added to the experience, to make it truly luxury. E-commerce as Art.
I once lived with an Experience Artist, Michael David Jones if you want to look him up. His art is based upon one-on-one unique experiences he offers to the viewer/participant. However, what is special about his art is that it’s based on some element of the participant's life, such as a secret message they write to a stranger, or a ritualistic cleansing of a bad memory using a childhood toy.
The commonality in his art can be taken down to three concepts.
It’s Relevant: The Art, whilst maintaining a theme, is customised to the participant, and therefore encourages a deeper level of interaction and engagement.
It’s Unexpected: The participant will rarely know what they’re going in for, and due to the level of customisation of the experience, anything can happen.
It’s Granular: Michael doesn’t put on a single big show, but will do a series of intimate events at festivals and galleries. This not only broadens his impact, but also allows him further creativity and flexibility.
Fortunately, we work in an industry where it’s easy to do all these things. We have technology (which remember, we mustn’t obsess over, it’s a given) that allows us to segment our visitors and customers and offer them, if necessary, completely personalised experiences, relevant to their interests, needs and desires.
Whether this is if they’re more likely to buy bags in exotic leathers, or in my case, gluten free meals, it’s the same concept. If I can model down to nearly the hour when one of my customers is going to place an order, a luxury e-commerce offering can easily segment me based upon the products I’ve viewed to measure my purchase propensity.
We can perform the unexpected, we can program in logic to trigger events based upon the shopper’s behaviour, much more easily than we can offline having to train up the salesforce. And with this flexibility, we can easily be granular, with promotions logic built into a platform (which we’re not obsessing about, it’s a given) that can be switched on and off on the spin of a dime.
This goes back to the wonderful Kathy Sierra’s post on User Treats. Treats are most effective when they’re sporadic, and therefore unexpected. A series of treats across a time is much better than one large single treat.
As I alluded to earlier, only a part of the new Louis Vuitton Maison is actually about shopping, the rest is a series of art installations and designs that are intended to add to the shopping experience. This is rarely recreated online, I myself admit when someone visits my site, I want them to buy something, of course.
But in the world of luxury ecommerce, there is a completely different set of rules, regarding portraying brand values, being seen to be innovative, to show craftsmanship, provenance and heritage, and to be both heavily influenced by, and proud sponsors of, the Arts. To revel in what it means to shop with that brand and the delight the shopper gets from it.
So why does this always translate into a nine terrabyte auto-playing video and a lazy, good-for-nothing Flash intro outsourced to some guy in Argentina?
We operate in the wrong world.
We operate in a world of e-commerce conferences staffed by photocopier salesmen, where a site front end is built separate to the back end. Of creative houses who focus on print but will knock out a something that appeals to you visually even though the experience of using it is akin to facial paralysis; you want to buy something, you just can't/
What luxury brands have to do is get out there, and speak to the real cutting edge, the actual digital artists, the guys with “this idea for an interface”, or the ones asking “what would happen is we overlaid swarming on top of a product hierarchy?” The ones who stopped designing websites long ago, to take up designing posters instead. Go speak to digital artists about creating custom installations for your store.
When someone shops with you, their single driving motivation is the thought of having the goods in their hands. I have purposefully not called this section “Delivery” as that focuses on the operational, from the view of the person giving rather than the recipient. How would you describe the premium receiving experience?
Well, lets define the receiving event as a User Treat. I classify these events as:
The experience of receiving my order may be relevant to me, to my needs. I should be able to choose the time and place I receive my order. Whether this requires couriering, in store collection (remember, if I’m laying down three grand on a bag, I’ll might want a sales assistant to fawn over me for a good 10 minutes) or a simple same day service.
As said above delivery cannot, and must not, be unexpected. If anything, the delivery experience should be a premium, timed event, this in the world of luxury ecommerce should be a given. No, what is unexpected, are the added extras, the customer service wows.
I’m always a big believer in consorting with aliens, learning from businesses outside of my sector. Take Dream Beds for instance. When they deliver, they will take their shoes off, make nice comments about the house, put padding on door frames, and so on, these additional unexpected delights, showing care, thought & attention.
How do we translate this into the pedestrian experience of receiving a package? Well, apart from a delivery driver saying “Here is your order from X, we hope it brings you joy”, and a faultless returns process (a given!) then the experience of opening the packaging itself must be a wow.
Have you ever been to La Maison du Chocolat on Picadilly? There the experience of packaging the chocolates is theatre in itself. You can wait for a good ten minutes whilst they individually polish each chocolate.
There is so much that goes into the packaging of an order. The interior and exterior of the box, the shipping labels, the invoice or goods receipt note, the internal packaging, the lime scented straw......
Every single element of the receiving experience can be customised - you just need to have a decent warehousing & distribution operation (again, you’re a luxury house, this is a given!). But it doesn’t happen. The next insanely expensive tie I buy will come in a pretty boring box, will a printed out delivery note, and not much else. The next time I place a Jo Malone order, I should be able to specify the scent of my straw. Even better, base the scent on which fragrance I might also like, and leave a little message telling me this and a sample vial.
I notice that still no online toy shop is offering Pass the Parcel gift wrapping yet. Sigh.
One of the biggest worries luxury brands have online is that the ubiquitous availability of their wares will cheapen the brand by reducing exclusivity. In fact, some brands use this as a way of excusing themselves from e-commerce completely. Such as this quote from the page on the Goyard website that makes me cry every time I read it.
We believe this long-standing commitment to our individual clients is best offered by direct, meaningful contact with them. Le Maison Goyard therefore does not engage in any forms of e-commerce, such as those offered by online catalogues, or through sales generated by e-commerce websites.
Whilst the logic of insisting on exclusivity is up for further debate, and one that I personally don’t agree with, there are other ways of maintaining exclusivity.
- Guided shopping experiences Faberge offers an interesting e-commerce route, in that anyone can view its storefront, but in order to be let into the site, you have to receive a personal call from a sales advisor. The sales advisor then talks through with you about your needs and tastes, and recommends a series of options for you.
- Invite Only & Time limited salesI There are a number of private sale ecommerce shops appearing, such as Vente-Privee, Keynoir and so on. Whilst I’m not convinced the business model has matured enough to attract luxury purchasers rather than bargain hunters, time-limited sales has merit for exploration, certainly at launch and end-of-line product
- Progressive Disclosure
It’s a nice idea, but one implemented horrifically. A series of flash overlays, a script that autodetects browser size and shows an unfriendly message on my top-of-the-line Macbook Air, and the message that sales advisors are no longer available in certain languages - the luxury equivalent of saying that all your lines are busy.
- This takes us nicely back to the new Louis Vuitton maison. You see, one of the hidden delights within the stores is a private, invite-only lift, which takes you up to one of the several suites.
- In these suites you can discuss customised, one of pieces, the latest runway exclusives, all within a private, comfy environment. However the only way you can get an invite is to have spent an offensive amount of money with them already.
Which brings us to the much more interesting concept of progressive disclosure.
- Slowly revealing further items to buy and website areas and functionality based upon user behavior, actual purchases or other event triggers. We have the technology (remember, it’s a given!) so we should utilize it.
And one day, maybe I’ll be able to purchase my £540 customised Goyard wallet online, eh?