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STATE OF THE INDUSTRY – SELLING HARD LUXURY ONLINE IN 2018

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As we all take our first steps into 2018 (whether they be cautious or bold), I  wanted to share my continuing observations on the shape of the digital landscape and how it is changing our industry.

2017 was a year of significant deal-making and developments in the consumer retail sector, which came after an extended period of great volatility, perhaps even an industry depression: the retail collapse of 2016 which saw numerous brands and retailers around the world close or go into receivership appeared to stem around the middle of last year, leading to a seemingly more stable market-place. Black Friday and Christmas shopping sales broke records at the end of 2017 and the overall industry mood felt more positive than it has for a sometime. Against this back-drop a significant level of consolidation and M&A activity took place over the year, the highlight of which was probably the acquisitive jousting between Amazon (with their purchase of Whole Foods) and Wallmart (with its slew of eCommerce additions). 2017 also saw significant investment into multi-brand luxury ecommerce, most notably with Farfatch’s gigantic investment/joint-venture with China’s JD.com but also Matches Fashion’s private equity investment from APAX.

In a previous blog post on the Future of Retail I argued that against the back-drop of a rapidly shifting retail sector (which is experiencing enormous shifts in the way consumers shop and consume media), every retail industry professional, particularly those operating in the luxury sector, from board to shop floor, will need to change their outlook and long-held beliefs on the traditional way of serving customers to accommodate changing customer expectations in the digital age.

Whilst the multi-channel, multi-media approach to consumer consumption is starting to become entrenched as the norm for soft-luxury (with shop-able Instagram feeds and the availability of light touch supply-chain and fulfilment platforms heralding the dawn of an age when influencers can truly become brands themselves), I am particularly interested in how the dynamics of retailing practice will change for the hard luxury sector. My firm, Luxury Recruit, has always had a core focus on the fine and high jewellery market and so I am fascinated to see how the jewellery industry, especially at the high-end, has attempted (and in many cases obstinately refused) to adapt to the digital and multi-channel landscape. Whilst growth in the global jewellery market is ultimately being fuelled by the shift to e-commerce due to the success of sites specialising in fashion and entry-level jewellery, the online fine jewellery market represents only a tiny fraction of global sales, for the moment at least. Whilst I previously mentioned a number of pure-play online sites that looked to change this state of affairs, none have particularly succeeded in-doing so. Plukka, an omni-channel jewellery retailer which operates on a try-at-home model, has so far had little traction. Another newcomer to the jewellery e-tail space which I commented on was Gleem & Co, a trusted online platform that exclusively handles high-end consignment jewellery. It has recently closed.

The pure-plays operating in the high jewellery space so far haven’t enjoyed the relative pioneering success that some of their equivalent multi-brand ecommerce predecessors in soft-luxury during the early days of luxury-online enjoyed, seemingly confirming the sceptics view that the super-high end luxury cannot sell online.

There has of course been some movement and efforts to transition online from individual brands. British jeweller Boodles says five years ago the average price point online was about £1,000, while today it is £3,000. Bulgari has demonstrated a commitment to online retailing as has Cartier.  But despite the fact that the majority of luxury brands now provide some kind of online commerce solution, they often only sell entry and core level pieces with the majority of high-end pieces sold exclusively in-store. Within the high jewellery sector, the picture is very clear with the majority of the world’s top high jewellery brands not selling online in any way (and many of them don’t even display prices online anywhere).

“It is currently one of the big topics for hard luxury. We talk about 9 percent of luxury good sales are online, but for hard luxury its 4 or 4.5 percent and that includes jewellery, which is much bigger than watches,” said Rene Weber, a watch industry analyst at Swiss bank Vontobel. “

For brands not prepared to commit to their own proprietary e-shop, partnering with an established multi-brand ecommerce platform has so far proven to be a useful way of dipping a toe in the eCommerce waters. British watchmaker Bremont was the first luxury watch brand to sell on Mr. Porter. Cartier has also since launched web-only exclusives on Net-a-Porter, as has Panerai (on Mr. Porter).

A number of analysts and industry insiders have argued that at the top end of the market, brands will never commit to online as there is a commonly held belief that customers will always want to experience the product physically in advance of making a significant purchase and that additionally they will miss the sales interaction and treatment that comes with making a high-end purchase in-store.

I challenge this restrictive and pessimistic view for a number of reasons: firstly, with so much concentration of global wealth and spending power now being in the hands of a new, younger, international elite who have grown up with, and become accustomed to, ‘digital everything’, forgoing the digital element of a brand interaction or purchase journey would be negligent and narrow minded. I truly believe that in the age of Instagram, customers expect a certain level of digital interaction and even confirmation: if it isn’t online, does it even exist, one might ask ironically. Secondly, I feel that the old perspective that selling online is purely about convenience, at the expense of experience, is dated and no longer valid given the opportunities and context that a digital and particularly multi-channel presentation can provide.

For these reasons, I have been paying particularly close attention to innovations in the multi-brand eCommerce landscape to see how pioneering platforms are blurring the boundaries between selling on-and-offline. I believe it is here that we will see the first outlines of a path to selling hard luxury, particularly fine jewellery, across channels. Of particular note, the world’s biggest luxury platforms have been, perhaps surprisingly, the most pioneering in their efforts to bring hard luxury online and doing so in a manner that manners to be both technologically innovative and at the same time re-assuring robust and ‘physical’  in nature as befits the product.

Selfridges in London has developed its click and collect service to cover a significant and ever increasing range of its jewellery holdings, providing a high level of presentation and product insight. Yoox-Net-A-Porter has also significantly developed its fine and high jewellery offering, making no secret of its intention to tap hard luxury with a target of €100 million of jewellery and watch revenues by 2020, perhaps unsurprising given its involvement with the Richemont Group. Of particular interest from a multi-channel and customer service perspective, earlier this year luxury jeweller Chopard opened its first e-commerce offering in China on JD.com, which employs suited couriers driving electric cars to deliver purchases within hours. The move will “let the young clients who love online shopping know more about Chopard,” said Tasso von Berlepsch, general manager of Chopard China.

Another significant move last year was LVMH’s launch of its proprietary multi-brand ‘online department store’ 24 Sèvres, which was pushed out to great fanfare. Presenting products from brands both within and outside of the LVMH stable (with stock fulfilled on a market-place and wholesale model accordingly) of the 150 brands initially on 24 Sèvres only around 20 to 30 will be LVMH owned (that will include Louis Vuitton and Dior, neither of which are available via any other multi-brand online boutique). What is particularly interesting about 24 Sèvres is its commitment to a new language of multi-channel retailing, forgoing the usual ‘packshot’ style of photography and catalogue descriptions for a seemingly more personal and perhaps even ‘impressionistic’ approach.  Ian Rogers, LVMH’s chief digital officer and the brains behind the 24 Sèvres project, has announced his desire to push ecommerce forward in exciting new directions, to better capture the experience and spirit of shopping in-store.

“I find it interesting that the Parisian perspective on fashion has been missing from the e-commerce landscape until now,” he said. “In my view it is a conspicuous absence and a huge market gap that we intend to fill. The move toward social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat comes hand-in-hand with the rise of the internet as a more visual medium and of mobile domination.”

Mr. Rogers has argued that increasingly consumers want pictures over words and that he has deliberately directed 24 Sèvres toward visually-led merchandising than the more editorial skew of the platforms competitors. Whilst 24 Sèvres currently only stocks entry level jewellery from the brands it carries on the site, the presentation of all products on the site shows a market move way from what Mr. Rogers has described as the first phase of e-commerce, when the focus was price and convenience.

“E-commerce has now moved on to our playing field: it’s about the customer’s time, an incredibly valuable asset, and then convenience in terms of the internet has really changed our expectations of customer service. LVMH has been smart to say, ‘Okay, now it’s starting to feel like us, let’s jump in.’

If Mr. Rogers and his team are focusing on the visual presentation and spirit of luxury to best represent premium products online, then Farfetch is looking at the ‘problem’ of selling luxury online through the other end of the lens: the billion-dollar fashion “unicorn” has been working hard on its ‘Store of the Future” and its proprietary operating system which looks to provide a ‘plug and play’ infrastructure for brands and retailers to leverage seamlessly across all channels.  The platform has so far been deployed across a small number of Farfetch’s partner stores, including the London Boutique Browns which Farfetch purchased in 2015 and Thom Browne in New York.  Farfetch’s founder  José Neves has stressed his company’s commitment to enabling bricks and mortar stores, hailing the future of the ‘connected store’:

“Today, over 90 percent of transactions take place in brick-and-mortar stores. By 2025, it will be around 80 percent, which is still eight out of 10 sales. When it comes to actually purchasing fashion, there will be a plateau in online sales. Fashion is not downloadable, which makes it very different from movies or music.”

Whilst 24 Sèvres and Farfetch may be tackling the challenges of luxury retailing in the digital age from two different angles (focusing on spirit and presentation on the one hand and multi-channel interaction and enablement respectively), they both show a commitment to exploring new approaches to retail that will be consumer centric and developed around the current and future generation’s perspective and mentality. Once further established, I have no doubt what so ever that both platforms will seek to expand their fine and high jewellery activity. Along with a number of style advisory and concierge applications that are currently available on the market, they represent pioneers exploring the new frontiers of how to sell at a high value across channels.

I believe the relative lack of activity in the high jewellery space online from the key brands and houses to date, and indeed the failure of the high jewellery pure-plays that have launched so far, has been due to an understandable (and probably correctly held) view that the existing and widely practiced ecommerce model is not suitable for high value items. This could all change soon as the new generation of multi-channel and immersive platforms which are currently being developed should provide exciting new avenues for brands to reach consumers directly in a language which will better reflect the experience of luxury shopping in the real world. Customers are used to a deep and seamless integration between their on-and-offline lives and I believe they will need ever increasing levels of digital confirmation, or affirmation, when making premium or high value purchases. The soft luxury industry has been disrupted by multi-brand ecommerce players such as Net-A-Porter, but now hard luxury’s time is coming as the next generation of platforms connect bricks environments to online representation, data and seamless customer service approaches.

I will be keeping a very close eye on the emerging developments at Farfetch and 24 Sèvres and I have no doubt that numerous other platforms and innovations will emerge over 2018. The winners are yet to be seen but nonetheless I feel a wave of change emerging and I would advise my clients and colleagues alike, particularly those in the business of hard luxury, to keep an open mind when it comes to both personal and team development and to bring on skill-sets and talents that straddle both the old ways of doing things (deep product knowledge, a customer centric attitude and presentation) with the new digital methodologies that are rapidly developing and which will be crucial to commerce in the future. We are truly entering the digital age of luxury and it is going to be exciting for all of us.

On that note, I wish everyone a fantastic start to the year and I look forward to working with you soon.

Best wishes,
Mohammed

Luxury & Fashion News & Insights

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