The pandemic pulled forward a decade’s worth of digital innovation into a single year. As a result, retailers and brands scrambled to shift their customer experiences online and set up new capabilities to reflect a multichannel approach to sales that seeks to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience — online from a desktop or mobile phone, by telephone, or in a brick-and-mortar store. Now that the strict days of the COVID lockdown are behind us, physical stores are reworking their strategies for long-term success, determining which COVID-born innovations to retain and grow.
In response to this wave of change, the luxury goods industry demands an even higher set of digital capabilities. Luxury brands and retailers need to go beyond the basics of pandemic-era conveniences of curbside pickup and online ordering. The need is to offer a truly personalized service, frictionless logistics, and an immersive experience.
Businesses catering to luxury consumers will not only be expected but will be required to exceed mass-market standards to vault them into a unique seamless digital experience.
The bar for fostering an outstanding in-store experience has risen. It was once considered enough for an associate to stand by the entrance and greet shoppers with a generic “hello” without taking steps to accelerate the path to purchase. In the case of online, effective product search once sufficed. But those “experiences” don't cut it in today’s luxury shopping environment. The digital experience is expected to replicate the high-touch service of the best physical stores, and physical stores need to match the speed and information available online.
In-store, luxury brands should offer one-on-one appointments to ensure customers receive personalized service. They should maintain privacy-compliant data on returning customers’ preferences to prepare for their visits and offer helpful recommendations. Associates should be empowered with the tools they need to offer rich product information for any items on the sales floor. Best-in-class digital retailers should also be able to access additional item inventory from other store locations or warehouses whenever a customer needs a different size or color. Technologies like virtual queues and mobile point-of-sale (mPOS) terminals should also be used to diminish wait times and boost overall consumer convenience.
In this new digital sphere, retailers should be able to stand up processes that make customers feel like they're being offered the same level of personalized, empathetic service demanded in-store. Chatbots are useful insofar as they can get customers quick answers to simple questions, but luxury brands need to offer more distinguished services like virtual clienteling for customers seeking more extensive assistance. Data-driven recommendations are also table stakes and should go beyond the resurfacing of past purchases that shoppers find on typical platforms, extending to complementary products.
The pandemic drastically boosted customers’ expectations of convenience and seamless transitions between online and offline shopping. For luxury shoppers, the standards are especially high, and a disappointing experience can drive a consumer to spend their top dollar elsewhere.
Luxury brands and retailers must develop all the capabilities the pandemic pushed forward and beyond. State-of-the-art innovations include buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) or buy online, ship to store (BOSS); curbside pickup; and endless aisle, which means allowing customers to order out-of-stock items and have them be delivered to their home or local store. Luxury stores should enable customers to preview inventory online so they don't have to travel to the physical location. Payments should be seamless and secure, whether the customer is paying online or tapping to pay via an associate’s mPOS terminal. Luxury retailers are also experimenting with cryptocurrency as a payment option.
The new tier of frictionless logistics includes digital capabilities to transact, track orders, and send back returns. Today, most retailers still make it too hard to deal with a disappointing purchase. For example, some retailers require shoppers to go to the post office for returns, adding inconvenience to an already dissatisfying experience. If you make returns simple with the ability to buy online and return in-store (BORIS), allow for digital tracking, and offer alternate recommendations, you may turn the potential losses of a return into a second purchase where the customer is now raving about how easy it is to do business with you.
If providing high-quality service and frictionless logistics are the first two tenets of the luxury hybrid retail standard, the third, and the one where luxury brands can truly distinguish themselves, is providing immersive experiences. This means going beyond fulfilling a customer’s basic needs or expectations to foster loyalty and brand advocacy. This can be achieved simply by making the shopping experience exciting, social and shareworthy.
For example, luxury brands can leverage customer preference data and new technology to build out true “store of the future” capabilities, seamlessly integrating the online and in-store experience, personalizing every aspect of the customer experience with 360-degree analytics and creating interactive shopping experiences in-store and online. These tactics can further boost the exclusivity underpinning a luxury brand and make customers feel valued — and thus more loyal to the brand.
Smart displays are one example of store-of-the-future capabilities. These in-store tablets can feature brand products and light up customers’ eyes with sartorial inspiration. Instead of having to try out each item in a dressing room, smart displays equipped with augmented reality can help shoppers visualize what products will look like on them — even if the product is out of stock — and expedite purchases, bringing the convenience and expanded horizons of e-commerce to the in-store experience.
Another emerging technology space luxury brands will want to consider is the metaverse. Although it's still in its infancy, the technology is evolving rapidly. With each passing day, high-performance virtual reality headsets, full-body tracking, haptic accessories, and more are becoming increasingly affordable and accessible to consumers. A journey into the metaverse, complete with virtual environments where shoppers try on any item of their choice and share experiences with far-away friends, is far closer than many realize.
To be sure, any brand surviving today, luxury or otherwise, made substantial and efficient adjustments to survive during the peak days of the pandemic. But now is not the time for brands to be content with past innovations. Instead, it's time to double-down on COVID-spurred innovations, fostering a hybrid customer experience that's even more seamless and delightful than shoppers have come to expect.
Susan Jeffers is the CEO and founder of XY Retail, a platform that simplifies commerce for global brands.
Related story: How Luxury Brands Can Ensure Seamless Experiences