In the past, luxury brands knew exactly who their audience was. They designed bespoke with a specific individual in mind. Today this no longer holds true, and the gap in understanding between consumer and brand is greater than ever before, not just for luxury but across all of retail. It’s not just about designing for a wider audience that’s done it. It’s that in many cases those at the top, running the brands, have grown distant from the people buying their goods. To add to this, the pandemic has set in motion widespread behavior change - consumers simply aren’t doing what they once did.
"C-suite execs don’t live in the real world. Particularly retailers, they are completely out of touch with their customers and what’s really going on," says Pamela Danziger, author of Meet the Henrys: The Millennials That Matter Most for Luxury Brands, who recently observed the disconnect amongst the power elite who are running US retail. This isn’t just a problem for politics or a threat to justice and equality. It’s also a disaster for industry if those running big business are wholly removed from the people they serve.
Let’s face it, even those of us without the wealth or influence to join the elite coterie are struggling to connect with those around us. A Forbes Health study last year found 56% of people feeling more isolated since the onset of the pandemic. It’s not just friendship groups that are under strain, it’s the humans working for retail brands losing touch with each other and their end user. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report exposed all of this with their staggering finding that only one-fifth of employees globally describe themselves as 'engaged' at work.
So how to re-engage and get back in touch with the customer? The first and obvious answer is to find your audience and go talk to them, look at their cultural worlds and consider their deeper, underlying needs and motivations. And don’t just do this once, keep at it. Being a cultural strategist, you might think I would say that. And it is true that our business thrives off a change narrative. But honestly, this time, it’s pretty much a permanent state of flux. The old priorities are out both due to choice and (mostly) necessity. All the well trodden consumption patterns that accompany settling down, setting up a home, having kids and having them fed and clothed have been stripped away.
“Young people have become short-termist,” explains retail author and strategist, Mark Pilkington, “It’s not about buying things to set up your life and move forward, not knowing what the future holds has paradoxically caused people to splurge out on things.” The response to Covid’s brush with death and the seriousness of the cost of living crisis has left people wanting to enjoy themselves more than ever. No one can blame them for that but it has made things tricky for brands. “Splurges are hard to predict,” says Pilkington who points out that certain retailers are however more likely to gain than others such as coffee shops, beauticians, hair salons, anything providing a short-term treat. Check out ‘Capitalism really popped-off today’ Tiktoks if you want to see thrill purchasing in action.
Another way to get closer to your audience is to create a community. As Martin Raymond, co-founder of The Future Laboratory explains, “Quite a lot of luxury brands are creating members clubs.” Raymond refers to these exclusive, private membership clubs as ‘gated retail’. We might say this is familiar luxury territory. But this is moving up a level, Ralph Lauren has launched Ralph’s Bar, a whisky bar in Chengdu, China. Thom Browne has just opened a private club and retail space in St Tropez and Viverelle, the designer fashion rentals subscription service has now launched a showroom with a social and workspace for its members in Manhattan. “This showroom offers [members] a place to spend their time, whether it be relaxing and socializing with friends and other members, a coffee break between meetings or a temporary place of retreat," Vivrelle co-founder, Blake Geffen recently told PR Newswire.
But it’s not just luxury that can play that game. We’re about to witness a chatbot explosion in the retail sector that will bring a feeling of exclusivity and personalised service to standard retail too. The third way to get close will be via the tech. And it’s helping to translate what luxury is doing into more mainstream offers. As Martin Raymond notes: “Chatbots are allowing us to feel important again, where previously it was transactional it’s going to become more conversational, intimate and exclusive.”
Shoptrue is one example. Billing itself as a one stop personal shopper it uses a combination of data science, machine learning and AI combined with inspiration from fashion experts, influencers and peers, to match people to relevant brands and styles. The technology is making this service accessible to everyday consumers. Why not incorporate this kind of experience into standard retail? And, crucially, harvest the data to better understand the customer’s mindset.
The store will then become the place to go to get a service that can’t be replicated online. This is the experiential retail that people like me have been championing for over a decade. It’s why Selfridges and Harrods are full at the moment and other high street stalls are empty. But it requires a whole new kind of store staff, one that can listen and respond to personalised customer needs. And this is the final way to get closer to your audience. “We need a relational store experience which tells the story of the brand, where staff can connect with the customer, crucially this is going to be a smaller store where there’s not loads of stock,” says Pilkington, who points out that to do this store staff will have to change. Chat GPT and its evolutions will demand a different kind of assistance in the physical store, someone who gives better advice than a machine.
Maybe those C-suite execs could get themselves on the shop floor and give that job a go.
Miriam Rayman is a cultural strategist, executive coach and founder of Now Then research.