Consumer Behavior, Luxury

Rx for Genuine Growth at Retail: Find, Train, Incentivize

RR Luxury Sales Associate Bain & Company forecasts the size of the global personal luxury market at $230 billion. And it worries it will grow by only one percent this year. Bank of America says, “No! This is too narrow a definition: Think of it as Vanity Capital!” Then, BofA says, the size of the prize is closer to $4 trillion.

It’s quite a range. And it’s beyond debating the right way to measure the luxury market (personal necessity or pure vanity?). Sooner or later you’re talking real money, as the cliché goes. How can genuine luxury brands monetize the lift that the appeal to vanity can provide? Let’s just say it won’t be by cutting back on sales staff or serious training. Walk into any of the usual suspect luxury retailers and abandon hope, all ye who enter. Not an instant of eye contact or welcome to be had.

Perhaps it’s because if they don’t already know you and your Black American Express, they don’t see the point in getting to know you. Perhaps it’s because the staffs have already been downsized to a fare-thee-well. Perhaps it’s because it’s an arrogant mark of pride to be dismissive of mere customers.

So, as many of my incredibly well heeled, but variously insecure, friends have found, it’s just easier to go online to purchase the essential statement pieces without dealing with the attitude. It’s not that we want the shopping experience disintermediated, it’s that we want it intermediated differently. We’d sooner check out a fashion blog to see how the look should come together than bother for advice from a bored sales habitué of the shop.

This coping strategy works wonderfully for the writers of the blogs. It also works well for the client whose horizons expand radically and immediately beyond the contents of the four walls of the luxury brand. For the brand, however, not so much.

Several years ago, I consulted to one of the premiere luxury brands. The issue was one of transaction vs. relationship. Women on their lunch hours were entering the stores all over the country, having torn out ad from the morning paper with a photo of an abby/fabby shoe. The sales associate took the picture, asked the size, handed over the goods and rang up $1,500 sale. Nary an extraneous word in the exchange. The woman was back at her desk on time. The sales associate got her commission. Check. Check.

What was missing? Perhaps some evidence of the pride in the craft of salesmanship? Perhaps a personal thrill in the beauty of the brand’s wares? Perhaps a sense that “this is what I’m doing until I get the job I want,” rather than the devotion of a true professional? It’s all of these, of course.

There was no relationship created. The woman didn’t get to consider options to go with the shoes for whatever important moment she was imagining. The sales associate didn’t gain a customer whom she could assist in considering the various looks available to her under that one roof and with whom she could forge a long-term and enduring relationship. The brand, exciting, luxe and built by a fabulously talented designer, didn’t get the opportunity to show its power. Nope. None of it happened.

That was the core insight: Not only did the shoe saleswoman not know her clients, she didn’t know her colleagues in the store. She didn’t know the merchandise, beyond this morning’s shoe ad. She didn’t feel a pride in the craft of walking her client upstairs to a fashion associate and sharing the real goal of the shopping odyssey.

When we cracked the code, we drilled all the way down to compensation and training. Then we tackled engagement between one sales personal and another on the apparel floor. We lowered the commission a point or two for each sales associate on the goods she normally sold. Why? To raise it by giving her points on what her colleagues sold, based on her referrals. And vice versa. Suddenly the fashion associate got a minor piece of accessories and shoe commissions. The client won a better look. The sales professionals got pieces of ever-larger sales ”rings.” And everyone got to like each other, and know each other better.

I was put in mind of this breakdown in sales relationships the other day in a Walgreen’s, of all places. I needed a passport photo and had time to kill in Greenwich. I dashed in with the hope of getting the photo taken and being on my way in 10 minutes. But, I had to wait for the photo fellow to deal with other customers first. Then he had to find the right camera, pull down the background screen and haul a chair over so I could be seated for the shot. All of this in the middle of a busy Walgreen’s. Still, I figured it would go quickly from there. But, no. I hung out at the counter for what seemed like an hour becoming increasingly agitated, I admit. That is until I saw what he was doing: air-brushing away stray hair from my photo. He showed such pride in such a small detail. I realized how lonely I was for a touch of personal service.

If we want retail sales to grow in stores and not just in somebody else’s online curation, we’d better find, train and incentivize genuine professionals who care to help us.

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