Retailers are finding ways to romance shoppers amid the pandemic.
In the Hamptons and around New York City, a Jimmy Choo van makes house calls, showing up with the latest collection for an in-home preview party. Kate Spade and Coach offer Zoom dates with sales associates for consumers to view the latest assortment. Lingerie brands such as Cuup let shoppers chat with a personal fit expert and get measured for a bra by way of a video fit session. Anthropologie’s Bhldn has virtual style appointments for brides-to-be to view gown options at home. Alibaba offers live streaming, so shoppers can see products in showrooms on models and talk with an associate by video before they buy.
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These are just a few of the examples of the ways retailers are using clienteling to stay connected to consumers while the traditional methods of retailing (brick-and-mortar stores) remain uncertain.
“Clienteling is about getting to the customer however they want to be gotten to,” Marcie Merriman, cultural insights and customer strategy leader at EY Consulting, told WWD. “It could mean if the customer wants to come into the store and they like being in that environment. Or, if they’re in a hotel room and they want a personal stylist to come to them. In our world today, of course, clienteling is much more about the company personally getting to where the consumer is, which for a lot of people is shopping at home.”
The definition of clienteling is as vast as the examples. But at its core, it’s the idea of a sales associate forming a relationship with his or her best customers to keep them informed on the latest trends by way of text messages, apps, social media or a personal phone call. The retailer’s history with the shopper means the sales associate to recommend products, services and sizing, and even anticipate future needs.
In today’s environment, these tools are essential. Because despite the recent rush toward online shopping created by the coronavirus pandemic, in-store shopping still makes up the bulk of consumers’ purchases. Thus, clienteling is a way for companies and brands to stay in touch with their most loyal customers — possibly even attracting new ones — while many stores around the globe remain closed and many more consumers remain fearful of going into physical stores.
Whatever the reason, clienteling is helping retailers drive revenues — and the practice is growing in popularity.
“Clienteling is where our world is going today,” Merriman said. “It’s increasingly going back to that world where the retailers actually know you and they bring you the stuff you need and when and where you need it.”
Once upon a time, retailers having one-on-one relationships with customers was the norm. Who can forget the milkmen who used to deliver products to clients’ homes each day before refrigerators became widely available, taking into account each customer’s shopping habits and food preferences? A number of smaller boutiques and leading fashion brands with their own stores have long relied on similar methods of commerce. Then came the rise of the department store and retailers scaling rapidly in order to sell to the masses. While department stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue still relied on clienteling for their biggest spenders, in many cases along the way the intimate relationship between customers and retailers was lost.
Even so, these practices still exist in some industries today: think about a personal stylist who picks out clothing options for his or her clients, remembering each client’s style preferences and measurements. Or, the hairstylist who takes note of which styles and products work best for each person. These public-facing salespeople offer valuable insights into the consumers’ minds and potential to buy.
“A lot of the most important data is in the sales’ associates heads,” Nick Kramer, vice president, practice leader for digital transformation and advanced analytics at SSA & Co., a global consulting firm that advises companies on strategic execution. “There’s much more than purchase history. There’s psychographic data: What are the characteristics of this person from a segmentation perspective? What is their age group? What are their behavioral preferences? What is their household income? Do they have a family? It is incredibly nuanced.
“Once you have your arms around the data, then you can start taking actions that not only drive a more predictable outcome, but [actions that] generate their own learnings so that the retailer can continue to improve and hone its actions,” Kramer said.
In-home and store appointment versions of clienteling offer another unique attribute: the shopper isn’t browsing. He or she already likely has an idea of what they want. Rather, they’re looking for recommendations from the brands that know them best.
“Clienteling is getting more into the personal responses,” Sonia Lapinsky, managing director at Alix Partners, said. “It helps influence that shopping behavior and has better engagement. It’s a logical way for companies to reach out and connect and maximize as many sales as possible online to compensate for missed sales from brick-and-mortar.”
“People still want to see people,” said Rori Duboff, managing director innovation and strategy at Accenture Interactive. “Thinking about your strategy, you want to make sure your people are still visible to your audience and customers.”
Mark Yuan, cofounder and chief executive officer of And Luxe, a livestreaming consulting firm that works with fashion brands throughout the U.S., China and Europe, tells clients to use live streaming services where models try on products and consumers can log on to see and comment. This starts a two-way dialogue between not just the brand and an individual, but between shoppers in different locations, thus creating a community around the brand.
“It’s almost like shopping in a group,” Yuan said during a recent Alibaba livestreaming webinar. “This is a collective shopping experience. The customers are talking to each other. Customers feel like they’re building a direct relationship with the brand. It is very informal but social.”
Yuan added that when consumers get answers to their questions immediately, in a three-dimensional way, conversion rates tend to increase and retailers veer towards fewer instances of ordering products that don’t sell.
“You can have a live focus group before you put anything into production, because people are voting on what they like best [during the livestream],” Yuan said.
Merriman of EY Consulting pointed out that technology is not a requirement of clienteling, but it does enable companies and brands to try new things, such as online tutorials and consultations.
Shoppers can learn how to apply beauty products from professional makeup artists without ever entering a store by way of MAC Cosmetics’ YouTube videos. Virtual reality lets fashionistas try on clothing and makeup by way of a camera on their mobile device or laptop. Web sites like Stitch Fix or The Yes offer AI-driven recommendations based on data points. Christian Dior shoppers can experience the Champs-Élysées store in Paris online by way of 360 virtual reality that allows them to scroll around and look at products on shelves as if they were in the physical store.
“It’s about giving the people the feeling that they’re in this environment that they would have gotten if they were in the store,” Duboff said. “The idea is that you get close enough to the product that you’re able to feel confident enough to buy it.
“Being able to stay in touch with potential clients, shoppers, has been a lot more complicated because nobody is traveling to stores anymore,” Duboff continued. “It’s doing all these things that are increasing the confidence of consumers, because what we see is that the biggest barrier to shopping for items right now that one would normally buy in-store is confidence. That’s what clienteling is, extending the value proposition. How do you extend the value proposition in the post-COVID-19 world so you’re not just the product? A lot of it is through digital content.”
Of course clienteling is nothing new. (It’s been happening in the luxury space for years.) In addition to the New York-area Jimmy Choo van, which was launched in June, the luxury shoe and accessories brand has been making house calls to some of its top clients for years. Jimmy Choo fans can request in-home appointments in almost any city where there’s a store in the U.S. or Canada, or can set up Zoom viewing sessions with sales associates.
Recently, Jimmy Choo creative director Sandra Choi did a Zoom video session with some of Neiman Marcus’ top clients, as the store has done with other designers it carries. Attendees were able to see the latest collections while asking Choi questions about the brand and her creative process.
“It’s bringing customer service to a new level where your client gets to experience and hear what the inspiration was for a new collection. In luxury, that’s what it’s all about,” said Tanya Golesic, president of the Jimmy Choo brand, adding that many of these clienteling options were available pre-COVID-19.
“Now we’re elevating that experience, hence the van, hence having more options in more cities to do it in,” Golesic said. “The idea came about partly due to the current situation; we wanted to be able to offer an enhanced service to our clients and be able to bring Choo to current and new clients in a number of ways. We’re excited about tailoring this to the client’s needs, especially during this uncertain time of not always feeling comfortable going into a store and not necessarily wanting to shop online.”
John D. Idol, chairman and chief executive officer of Jimmy Choo’s parent company, added on the most recent conference call with analysts that the fashion house, which includes the Michael Kors and Versace brands, is sending whole wardrobes to shoppers’ homes, so they can “pick and choose and live with the clothes for a day or two and then we’ll have them brought back to us.”
“And there’s been some very, very good response to that,” Idol said.
At Ralph Lauren, virtual appointments and showrooms, along with livestreaming selling, have helped drive revenues.
“In North America factory stores, for example, virtual appointments have driven double the spend versus our average consumer transaction,” Ralph Lauren ceo and president Patrice Louvet told analysts during the company’s August conference call. “We also continued to roll out targeted personalized consumer engagement, including tailored marketing and promotional offers. This will enable us to drive more effective marketing, along with a lower level of overall promotions and better product recommendations over time.
“We’re putting more emphasis on connected retail and refining how we integrate these capabilities within this ecosystem strategy,” Louvet continued. “This includes the adoption of virtual showrooms, which we successfully rolled out for men’s Purple Label last month and continuing to expand our digital product creation. I think the Chinese Mainland situation is probably our best example of bringing all that to life, but it’s actually been very energizing to see how this has been expanded across all of our regions.”
But clienteling isn’t just happening within luxury brands.
“Retailers have been struggling, or were struggling with all of the shutdowns,” Lapinsky said. “They don’t have the same level of engagement with the customers, definitely not like before. And consumers are shopping more online than they ever have before. So there’s more of an opportunity to engage with their customers online.”
But even after the pandemic is over, Lapinsky said the practice of clienteling isn’t going away anytime soon.
“We’ve had such a disruption in retail; it’s unknown what’s going to happen going forward,” she said. “But I think the expectation of customers to have more personal interactions with retailers, that’s an expectation that’s only increasing. There’s also the demands of the shoppers now: They want to be able to buy what they want, when they want, whatever way they want. That’s only increased [since the pandemic began] and we’ve seen all retailers having to adapt to that. So the better armed these retailers are with these kinds of tools and the better loyalty they can garner with their customers now, then they’ll be better set up [for the future].
“The retailers that are really going to win are the ones that keep pushing the boundaries of how they service their customers, how they can interact with them and drive engagement,” Lapinsky continued.
Merriman agreed. “The challenge is that consumers are getting used to more of this personal experience. It’s not going to go away,” she said. “Once they get a taste of something they’re going to want more of it.”
The biggest obstacle will be to utilize clienteling while remaining profitable.
“A lot of companies, businesses, retailer brands, wouldn’t have done this sort of thing in the past because they wouldn’t have seen it as cost efficient,” Merriman said. “Now they’re doing whatever they can to just maintain costs.”
Now might not seem like the best time to be experimenting with so many unknown variables up in the air. But many firms will need to find a way to engage with consumers any way they can as the entire retail sector continues to slowly inch itself out of a deep hole — total retail sales fell 8.1 percent between April and June compared with a year earlier as consumers sheltered in place. Specialty apparel and accessories store sales plunged 57.3 percent during the same period, year-over-year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Department store sales dropped 27.7 percent.
But even as retail sales began to rebound in June — and slightly more in July — the bulk of those sales were in food and other essential products. Sales of specialty apparel and accessories were down nearly 30 percent in June compared with the year prior, largely due to so many retail store bankruptcies, according to a report by S&P Global.
From June to July, apparel and accessories specialty store sales rose 5.7 percent, but were still down 20.5 percent compared with July 2019. Department stores registered an even smaller sales gain (0.1 percent) from June to July, but fell 13.4 percent year-over-year.
Suketu Gandhi, a partner and leader for digital supply chain at Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm, said clienteling — when done correctly — can actually reduce operating costs.
“If somebody is losing money doing clienteling, it’s because they’re taking the old physical model and trying to force it in the digital space,” Gandhi said.
Much like a Broadway play adapted to the silver screen, digital stores don’t always invoke the same feelings as physical ones. That’s why Gandhi tells retailers to reexamine how funds are allocated.
The best examples of clienteling, Gandhi said, are “brands like Nike that are first thinking about the consumer and what purpose their product has and where the product fits in their lifestyle. The digital interaction reflects what they know about the consumer. The merchandising approach shouldn’t be the old one where they can leave it on the shelf and hopes somebody comes and buys it.”
Clienteling, then, is not just about a retailer being everywhere, but rather about the retailer going to find the consumer in his or her environment. As the process continues to evolve, companies and brands continue to perfect their individual approaches. But experts agree there are a few best practices retailers need to keep in mind before they begin.
Web Site Optimization
Since shoppers are spending more time at home, they’re spending more time on their laptops rather than mobile devices. That means retailers that were once concerned about mobile-first selling now need to make sure they’re web sites are up-to-date and user-friendly.
“It’s really important that brands’ web sites provide an experience that’s almost like a magic mirror experience, because people are spending so much time online now, finding and buying things that they wouldn’t normally,” Duboff said. “They’re just in front of their computers more and not going to as many places anymore. So the digestion of media is a lot more and there are so many more opportunities to reach people.”
She added that a brand’s digital strategy and use of services like clienteling will determine its success into a post-pandemic world.
“Every brand that wants to stay alive needs to be moving into this space,” Duboff said. “If you want to stay successful, if you want to maintain leadership, you have to continue a conversation with your customers. You can’t just stop it. And there’s a lot of interesting new ways to reach people.”
Most experts agree retailers will need to optimize their store fleets and distribution centers. This will save on labor costs and capital investments. Meanwhile, the same brands should invest further into their best assets: their sales associates.
“People who are highly, highly skilled, being able to do things that consumers can’t do and constantly knowing what’s next and what their options are,” Merriman explained. “Even where you can use technology, there’s going to be a need for constant re-skilling. These companies are going to have to stay ahead of the game and help the people do the same.”
Know Your Audience
Another thing brands need to ensure is that they’ve researched their core shoppers and are marketing directly to them.
“There is a reason those people were coming into stores in the first place,” Duboff said. She suggests asking questions like, “Were they coming there because they wanted to see the clothing? Or, because they wanted to talk to someone? What is the end goal? Figure out who your audience is and what their behaviors are.”
That means brands will need to know their customers on a granular level. Many answers to these questions can be found through data, or by asking detailed questions, rather than assuming. Kramer suggests brands conduct controlled experiments with shoppers that generate their own findings and allow them to improve.
“Those are the fundamental building blocks of getting this journey started the right way,” Kramer said. In addition, knowing the shopper and the community the brand is serving helps build loyalty and brand awareness.
“The new market that we’re in is one that everyone has had to up their game,” Kramer said. “Staying top-of-mind, but above all creating that loyalty, is going to be even more important than ever. Convenience and price were used to drive loyalty in the past. Things like Walmart Plus are making shopping a more level playing field [against Amazon]. When all the prices are the same and there’s an incredible price transparency, the consumer is going to go with who gets them; who makes you feel better about making that transaction; who makes it not just easier, but an end-to-end better experience.”
Brands that aren’t online will need to get there and fast. But even more important is that retailers use video features like video conferencing, 360-degree virtual reality and other interactive experiences to connect with consumers.
“What if in 10 years all of our mirrors are fashion mirrors?” Duboff said. “You get up in the morning, you stand in front of the mirror and you pick your outfit. Either you have it or you can try on multiple new outfits every day and buy multiple outfits every day by looking in the mirror, without going to a store. You’ll be able to see how you look in it. These things are empowering people to make buying decisions because they see the product on themselves, versus, maybe, waiting for the recommendation by having to go to a store and wander around and hope that the consultant gets your style.”
Create Solutions, Not Barriers
Brands need to consider how they are making their customers’ lives easier — not harder.
“Retailers constantly keep creating barriers to buy,” Gandhi said. Some, for example, have confusing payment services or interfaces. Others make it nearly impossible to talk to a real person. Then there are the endless hassles of returns.
“You know full well that maybe 30 percent of items will get returned, so make it easy for them to do that,” Gandhi said. “Don’t create a barrier.”
Another common complaint — and potential deterrent — is “time-boxing” stores into standard business hours, Merriman said.
“Consumers are going to expect more and more,” she said. “If I want to go shopping at 2 a.m. Or, if I want to make a return at 2 a.m. Or, if I have a question about something on the web site and I want to understand the sizing, or whatever it is, and I want to talk to a human being, I want to be able to pick up the phone and do it now. I don’t want to wait for the call center hours Monday through Friday. I want to have a clienteling-type relationship.”