The high-fashion industry is growing steadily: In the past 15 years, the overall number of luxury consumers has increased from 140 million worldwide to over 350 million. According to the leading management consulting firm, Bain & Co., the global personal luxury goods market reached $251 billion in revenue in 2014, constituting a 3 percent increase when compared to 2013. This upward trend continued in the first quarter of 2015, and the market's full-year performance is expected to increase 2-4 percent.
Most retail industry experts agree that the ability to operate on several marketing channels (including in-store, online and mobile) is a key factor which merchants cannot afford to ignore. This is especially true of high fashion customers that are very mobile and can transition among various purchasing channels and across countries with ease.
One thing is clear – no matter where or how these savvy customers choose to seal the deal, they want to be wooed and courted with an elevated and personally customized shopping experience.
Understanding local luxury purchasing.
On the local level, it is important to understand the principles of show-rooming and web-rooming (or reverse show-rooming) within the luxury industry. Show-rooming refers to the practice of examining merchandise in a physical retail store and then buying it online, while web-rooming refers to customers who do their research online but ultimately buy products in-store.
Luxury consumers use both of these shopping methods. Due to the fact that they often purchase expensive items, after viewing a product online they may prefer to complete the actual transaction at a physical store. Whether it is an expensive article of clothing, a couture handbag or a top-priced watch, the customer wants to feel the texture or try the item on personally before closing the high-cost deal.
The fact that the luxury sector is going strong doesn’t necessarily mean that couture buyers are willing to hang the cost. Bain & Co. notes that price awareness and consciousness among consumers have increased significantly, leading to a rise in the off-price luxury market, which now represents more than 30 percent of total luxury sales. When shopping abroad, luxury customers often come with a shopping list expressly to find cheaper deals in foreign countries. Bearing all this in mind, the high-fashion buyer may well choose to visit a local luxury store, check out a high-end item and then buy it online or off-price.
The appeal of free delivery and free returns.
Many of today’s luxury buyers were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, people who rose from rags to riches have a healthy appreciation of the dollar and its value. They like special offers and enjoy attractive perks such as free returns and free deliveries as much as any other consumer.
While some luxury retailers are dragging their feet when it comes to free returns and free deliveries, these practices are fast becoming the norm. A growing trend is same-day deliveries, which is proving to be quite a challenge for luxury retailers. When free delivery is offered, buyers tend to order much more than they would when charged for delivery.
The combination of free returns and free delivery appears to be irresistible to buyers. Laura Morroll, a Managing Consultant of LCP Consulting, notes that a retailer who is sure enough of the quality of its products to offer free returns, inspires customer confidence and loyalty. In addition, many luxury retailers have discovered that when there is no charge for delivery, there are far fewer returns. As aspirational buyers, consumers might knowingly order an item in the wrong size and keep it for another season (or the next diet, depending upon which comes first).
Luxury purchasing habits at home and abroad.
In order to attract foreign luxury buyers, retailers must create brand awareness in their home countries. Even if buyers decide to purchase luxury goods abroad, they carefully study the various brands and products before leaving home. Top-end brand retailers need to monitor where the luxury buyers are heading and provide signage and other assistance in the tourists’ native languages at the vacation destinations.
But luxury retailers also cannot afford to ignore consumers who decide to buy at home because they prefer luxury products crafted according to their specific culture. Some luxury brands are already creating lines for local buyers in China and India.
Global purchasing pitfalls.
Bain & Co. states that tourism is the major driver of the global luxury industry's performance. While touristic spending may be widespread, there are pitfalls that retailers must be aware of.
Imagine a tourist purchasing luxury goods in a US branch of a luxury store and then returning to his or her home in London (or any other city outside of the US) only to discover that their return cannot be completed at the local branch of the same luxury retailer due to company policy, often driven by legislative reasons.
This is because luxury returns can only be processed via the same gateway used for the initial purchase, and many retailers use different gateways around the world to optimize payments by region. While some merchants use a single gateway for all markets, mitigating the problem of international returns, these merchants face other cross-border challenges, such as steep cross-border and currency conversion fees, higher decline rates, and greater fraud risk.
Let's take a look at some growing luxury markets.
Today, Chinese consumers constitute over 30 percent of global luxury spending. They are considered the main cause of the shift from local consumption to touristic spending, which now accounts for about 50 percent of all luxury spending. The total amount of money the Chinese are spending on their shopping trips is surging, from $18 billion in 2002 to $154 billion in 2014.
Most luxury retail brands already have a presence in China. The exposure to leading luxury brands at home and on the Internet have made wealthy Chinese consumers knowledgeable about luxury brands and differences in pricing at various locations.
Gifting has been identified as an important motive for Chinese luxury product buying. In addition, many members of the growing middle class in China purchase high-end goods to mark themselves as part of the higher social class. At the same time, these luxury goods serve to differentiate them from members of the lower social class.
Some luxury retailers are already selling high-end products designed especially for the Chinese market, which incorporate Chinese designs and imagery.
India’s gems and jewelry sector contributes around 6-7 percent of the country’s GDP. The domestic gems and jewelry industry has the potential to grow to $85 billion by 2018. The latest Gold Demand Trends report from the World Gold Council indicates that the total consumer demand for gold in India last year exceeded that of China.
India’s marriage market is huge. It is estimated at nearly $35 billion and is growing at about 25 percent per year. Due to the fact that jewelry signifies a woman's married status in Indian culture, finely crafted gold jewelry is in high demand. Rather than using a wedding ring as Western cultures do, Indians wear a variety of ornaments according to regions. Women often wear special jewelry just for their wedding ceremonies. Thus, the love for high-end jewelry comes naturally to wealthy Indian consumers, who are known to pour many thousands of dollars into their weddings to pay for jewelry, designer clothes, cars, gifts and more.
According to Karoline Huber of luxury watchmaker IWC Shaffhausen, in India it is common practice to invite a brand representative to one’s home to provide hospitality and view luxury items in a domestic environment, rather than visit a boutique or shopping mall.
Here, too, luxury brands are seeking to cooperate with local relationship experts in order to customize luxury goods to local holidays, customs and festivities. Some brands are already customizing their products; for example, Hermès has created its sari collection in India.
Nevertheless, many Indian consumers prefer to travel abroad to do their luxury shopping, perhaps because they do not want to appear ostentatious in a country where there is widespread poverty.
When discussing the connection between the Middle East and luxury consumption, it is important to understand that it is a “two-way street.” Dubai serves as a major hub for luxury buyers from all over the world, but many Middle Eastern buyers also migrate to Europe for their luxury shopping.
The Middle East is one of the ten largest luxury goods markets, with sales exceeding $6.74 billion, according to a market study of the Middle East published by Bain & Co. After conducting price comparisons for high-end items worldwide, many consumers from all over the world are looking for new shopping destinations, such as Dubai, South East Asia and Australia. The report indicates that Dubai accounts for 30 percent of the luxury market in the Middle East region.
Whether the location of luxury shopping is in the Dubai or London, religion is an important guiding source for decision making among 71 percent of the consumers as compared to a global average of 32 percent.
Every year prior to the holy month of Ramadan, Middle Eastern shoppers arrive in London, and purchase an array of luxury gifts before flying home for a month of daily fasting. Another shopping surge occurs during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.
Despite the fact that no male outside of their household will ever see Arab women in haute couture dresses, Arab women buy high-priced designer clothing from the world’s leading fashion houses.
Although tourists from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar make up only a small percentage of total visits to Britain in comparison to U.S. and European luxury consumers, they are generally more lavish spenders. Official figures indicate that Middle Eastern tourists came second in total spending for luxury goods last year, reaching $1.5 billion.
In order to gain an edge, today’s high-end brands must craft a specialized shopping experience for luxury buyers at every physical and online channel, both domestically and globally. This includes understanding cultural and religious nuances, and speaking the foreign customer’s language both literally and figuratively to address the pitfalls standing in the way of truly frictionless luxury customer experiences globally.