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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.

Experience

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.

Delight

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.

Receiving

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:

  • Relevant
  • Unexpected
  • Granular

Relevant

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.

Unexpected

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.

Dream Beds delivery experienceI’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.

Granular

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.

Exclusivity

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.

Goyard Wallet SadnessWe 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.

  1. Guided shopping experiences
  2. 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.

    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.
    Faberge Resolution Fail

  3. Invite Only & Time limited salesI
  4. 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
  5. Progressive Disclosure

Louis Vuitton Private Suite

    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?

Matthew Curry

Published 2 June, 2010 by Matthew Curry

Matt Curry is Head of E-commerce for online sex toy retailer LoveHoney. He spends a lot of time working on user experience and customer satisfaction is his highest priority. He frequently has to be penetration tested. You can follow him on Twitter, although he does often talk about dildos. He also has a LinkedIn profile, where he has to act professional.

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Comments (16)

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Matt Tyrrell

Like you I feel online luxury retail is an underwhelming experience. I was looking forward to the Selfridges online offering, but was left a little disappointed by its lack of adventure.

You're cost of sale point is a salient one - I used to work in the e-commerce department of a multi-channel luxury brand and it was very difficult to encourage the same kind of thought, investment and creativity that went in to store design, lookbooks and offline visual merchandising.

'E-commerce as art' is a provocative phrase, but I do feel there's a major opportunity for someone to create an online experience as unique and sophisticated as Louis Vuitton's New Bond Street Maison; especially with all the extra possibilities that digital offers.

over 6 years ago

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Amanda

hi - liked this article but somehow thumbnail images block off the beginning of each paragraph of text in the middle of the piece, making it really hard to read.

it is really annoying and for an article that criticises the lack of 'luxury' on luxury ecomm sites to then be set back by this kind of bad layout/ rendering (has no one done any testing/ preview/ QA?) is ironical to say the least.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Great post Matt, brilliantly written as usual. Not sure the luxury brands will love you though....

I've often been dismayed at the soulless experience of major premium and luxury brands. Reiss always depresses me. That statement by Goyard is indeed strange - sounds like finding a reason not to have to think hard about delivering an on-brand experience online.

Re cost of sale, it's not just luxury where this logic isn't applied. I've worked across many retail sectors and seen big budgets for store refurb whilst web teams scrap for the pennies. There is still an entrenched mentality that ecommerce just needs a functionning website and then it will rake in the cash. Many people don't see the need to manage investment in the same way as more 'traditional' offline channels.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

Hi Amanda, that is quite ironic! I preview in Firefox, and it renders fine in mobile safari (iphone/ipad) but tbh the back end admin system for the blog isn't the friendliest thing know to man. Maybe I should redesign it.....

over 6 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

Oh James, I don't think luxury brands will ever love me........sob. I spent some time trying to think of somewhere that was doing it right - netaporter might be the closest, but even they sometimes verge on the "normal ecommerce store that happens to sell expensive things" - but then being a pureplay they don't have the disparity issue. I would give a kidney to see what HN, Harrods & Liberty come up with in response to what Selfridges have done. I do have one hell of an idea for a luxe department store interface :-)

over 6 years ago

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Rayna

Matt, very insightful post. Having worked with luxury brands online for many years many thoughts went through my mind and I'll share a few here with you. When customer service and customer experience are the priority it usually comes through online. Not sure that is the case for many luxury brands (in any medium)? Often it is about their design and products. Also, online is a more intimate medium and lends itself to a certain familiarity -- not many luxury brands want that type of familiarity with their customers. In fact they are still protecting an exclusive, non-ubiquitous positioning-- reluctant to give up their authoratative posture. In addition, many of these brands are still mired in a 'print world' (and I love print) where big, luscious visuals pay hommage to their work. Sadly, still, online (ecommerce especially) requires some concessions to that print art with a fair balance of design, technology, form and function. This is not an easy conversation to have with luxury brands who are not focused on customer experience and may lack the undertstanding and comfort of what digital can do for their business. See where i'm going? I hate sounding so negative, as some luxury brands do get it like: Car makers: BMW, Audi; Luxury retailers like Neiman Marcus; But in couture, apparel, and accessories, can't think of a standout ecommerce experience. But, ever the optimist, I'm still looking.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Amanda - thanks for raising a flag... what browser are you using? It all looks fine to me but I'd like to investigate. 

over 6 years ago

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Jonathan Hall

Hi Matt,

Great article. What strikes me is that this is a conversation that has been had for a number of years. I remember going to an IMRG talk where the Head of eCommerce for Gucci was talking and they had just released their new site which at the time took luxury sites from purely a high design, no function thing to one where you could find and buy products. 

By doing this though they certainly compromised on the luxury experience you would get in store. Looking at the site again today it hasn't really changed much since then (about 3 years ago). It still have horizontal scrolling and products float out from behind sections. The site, with its scrolling and movement, feels a bit like an iphone app. I'd like to see it on an ipad as it might work fantastically and maybe we'll start to think that they were way ahead of their time!

I ordered a briefcase for my sister who had graduated as a teacher a while ago from the Radley site. Although they are not luxury they are premium and an aspirational purchase for many. They packaged the bag up beautifully and added the unexpected which had the desired and very positive effect on my sister. 

Maybe some of the premium brands can teach the luxury guys a thing or two. 

Cheers, Jonathan 

over 6 years ago

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Amanda

Hi I am on IE6.

I know in the ideal world we are all on firefox, gozilla, safari etc etc, but a lot of us working in the corporate world have to make do with IE6 and Lotus Notes.

This issue of thumbnail images blocking the text has happened before so will be great if it can be addressed.

thanks. 

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks Amanda. The bad news is that we decided to stop supporting IE6 back in January in order to focus on new features, which is why our site (and others) may look a bit wonky for you. 

Less than 4% of our visitors use IE6 and the amount of effort we were putting in to fix up bugs just didn't seem worth it. I know that sucks, given that you're corporate setup is IE6, but for us it was about priorities, given our small development team. Sorry.

c.

over 6 years ago

Adam Qureshi

Adam Qureshi, Founder & Creative Director at Qureshi Media

Dear Matt,

awesome article ! i think the gilt group has it down to a science their e-commerce  site for  their interface  things like speed, simplicity ,ease of use, and clarity are the focus . Im meeting with a client this week and it's a luxury shop in NYC Matt are you available for consulting ? gimme your email  maybe you can help me with this ? lets chat ! 

over 6 years ago

Matthew Williams

Matthew Williams, Managing Director at QubaSmall Business

We've just written a similar post about issues with the Cartier website: http://bit.ly/aX6ETS

over 6 years ago

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Daniel HAYTER, Project Manager at vente-privee.com

At vente-privee.com we go out of our way, to an extent that no other e-commerce website I know can equal, to make fashion houses feel that their values and image are being upheld. For almost every sale on the website we produce a high end video advertising the brand, as well as photography fit for a glossy fashion magazine. For top end luxury, have a look at the upcoming VPlounge sale on the UK website.

over 6 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

I think the web is a great leveller.

It's interesting that luxury retailers are perceived as such because of the items they sell, the opulence of their high street stores, or the extremely high level of service they provide. Often it's all 3.

I think that, most often, the perception that a brand is luxurious will be formed prior to visiting a website, so one issue would seem to be how to foster that perception online.

I think you've inadvertently hit the nail on the head with Net a Porter Matt: has the 'ordinary' e-commerce experience done anything to detract from the perception of luxury? Not if the recent sale price of the business is any indication, no. I don't really go for the disparity thing as it's not even possible to recreate online.

I really think that that's the answer - keep it simple, don't try too hard to do clever stuff. Write good copy, feature high-quality images and concentrate on providing an innovative and high quality service. But just keep it simple - the website's only there to take the order. 

over 6 years ago

Adam Qureshi

Adam Qureshi, Founder & Creative Director at Qureshi Media

Have you noticed that those atrocious Flash intros have practically disappeared from the Web? The only place you're likely to find a Flash intro these days is on an advertising agency website. Why did they disappear? Because customers absolutely detested them, and music ? the first thing i do when i goto a site with music is look how to shut off or leave the site altogether! and as soon as i goto the Vente-privee site i get music ? why ? why music for what ?what is reason ? and there is not a clear way to shut the music off just an icon i dont think most users of the vente-privee site can even find way to shut off the music and the site is flash i think vente-privee can learn from the gilt group site . simple , usable , focus on clarity get in get out (task) that's it . Vente-privee can just look at the analytics ! that will reveal a lot they need a complete overall of their site UX /UI/IA/CS/ get rid of FLASH unless your in advertising :-)

over 6 years ago

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Vasquez

The Wall Street Journal is now reporting the next iPad
may have 4G LTE connectivity. stLight.possibilities( publisher:'fe5e0a84-1fac-40de-8014-9f89fc1cbe6a'

about 4 years ago

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