A look at how luxury brands are trying to create great experiences online as well as offline… 

Luxury brands have traditionally excelled at creating an special experience for customers in stores, to differentiate themselves from the ‘average’ retailer.

This includes factors such as beautiful store design, great personal service and advice from store staff, and even little extras such as offering shoppers a glass of champagne. This quality of service, added to the quality of the products, provides potential customers with the best possible store experience.

However, luxury brands have faced challenges when attempting to recreate the in-store customer experience online, or to at least create an online experience which matches the brand image, and they have not always succeeded.

Some brands, for this very reason, have been reluctant to sell online. Some have felt that ecommerce cheapened the brand, or made it less exclusive. For example, Chanel only starting selling online in 2015, having previously stated that ‘to be able to wear Chanel clothes, you need to try them on.’

Online, it’s different. While the sheer look and feel of a luxury store tells high street shoppers it’s different to Primark, ecommerce is a more level playing field in many ways.

Online, any brand can provide a great user experience if it works hard enough and understands its customers. In this space, it’s harder for a luxury brand to stand out, and the challenge of making a website seem luxurious is a really tough one.

Some luxury brands have failed this challenge in the past, attempting to differentiate through bold design. This meant sites often looked good, but could be awful to use, as visual design was given more importance than usability.

Whistles is one such example. It relaunched its site back in 2009, with the company declaring:

“We spent a lot of time researching best practice online. We then threw out everything we had learned, and just designed something that pleased us visually.”

The result was a site that looked good, but was very difficult to buy from, as it had ignored basic best practice around crucial areas like checkout design.

Whistles has since redesigned the site to make it more user friendly, and many luxury brands have gone down this route. Fewer brands are putting design ahead of usability.

There are exceptions, but in general,  luxury ecommerce sites are now well designed and easy to use.

The downside, from the luxury brand perspective, is that Gucci’s website offers more or less the same functionality as Tesco, making it harder to differentiate.

Given the importance of user experience online, it is hard to go against the grain in terms of design. People are used to the way ecommerce sites work, and to change this radically is to risk losing sales.

Check out Balenciaga for a design that stands out, while Hermes.com’s Maison des Carrés is a fun way to present its products.

The key point is that both sites still function well, though usability tests would doubtless uncover some issues.

Rather than looking to change the wheel with site design, luxury retailers should focus on the factors that make for a great customer experience.

  • User experience. Sites that are easy to use and buy from will sell more. It’s as simple as that. Burberry is a great example of this, with a site that works equally well on mobile and desktop.
  • Product imagery. Images can be used to show products in the best possible light. For luxury products images should be high quality, allowing shoppers to zoom in to see details.
  • Great copywriting. Product copy needs to work to convey the quality and luxury of the product. The tone of voice needs to match the product and price.For example, Rolex talks about the materials, the history and detail which goes into creating its watches.
  • Excellent service. Online, luxury brands need to provide customer service where its needed. For example, a clear contact number placed prominently during checkout can help with any last minutes doubts shoppers may have.Luxury retailers face the same issues as any other online retailer, but customers are likely to expect a higher standard of service if they have any problems post-purchase. Returns should be hassle-free, and people will expect better service when they have spent thousands on a product.
  • Delivery and packaging. Customer expectations around delivery are higher than ever before. It’s no longer sufficient to simply offer delivery within three to four days, so luxury retailers need to provide next day, specific time slots and even same day where possible.More importantly, items need to be delivered on time. Packaging is a great way of delivering that ‘wow factor’ for customers. To an extent, the packaging needs to reinforce the promise of the brand. If people order an expensive handbag, standard brown packaging won’t do.
  • Customer journeys. There’s also the entire customer journey to think about, so online (including mobile) needs to work with offline to create the best experiences whatever channels customers use. Services such as click and collect join up online research and purchase behavior with stores, and help to send online shoppers into stores.

Meanwhile, retailers are doing more to help shoppers in store using technology. The Harrods mobile store guide is one example.

Recreating the in-store luxury experience online is not easy to do, but retailers can show their products in the best possible light, and create websites which are a pleasure to browse and buy from.

After this point, it’s about providing the kind of service, including delivery and packaging, that customers would expect from a luxury retailer.