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Luxury stores add more amenities in a tougher market

Posted September 22

In this Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, photo, runner Aubrey Howard exchanges a garment for Associated Press writer Anne D'Innocenzio, at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store, in New York. With designer goods available online anytime, luxury retailers are adding more amenities and personal touches for in-person shopping. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

— Buying some suits at Ralph Lauren might mean being offered a chauffeured ride home in a BMW. New clothes from Saks could lead to a Mercedes-Benz van carrying a customized wardrobe pulling up to a home, hotel or office.

With designer goods available online anytime, luxury retailers are adding more amenities and personal touches for in-person shopping. Stores overall are facing slower sales amid more restrained luxury spending, and some brands' flagship locations in major cities have seen a drop in shopping by international tourists because of the stronger U.S. dollar.

That makes it even more important for retailers to keep the customers they have feeling valued and pampered.

Robert Burke, president of his namesake New York-based luxury consulting business, said he was surprised when the Ralph Lauren sales staff sent him back to his office with a uniformed driver after he came in to buy two suits. He was offered the same chauffeured treatment for the fitting. And he was so pleased with the service he bought a coat and blazer on the visit to do the alterations, and penned a note to the founder's chief of staff with thanks.

"It made you feel they really appreciated my business, and it made me want to shop. It was a nice perk to have a driver come and pick you up," he said.

What Burke hadn't realized was that the Ralph Lauren store in Manhattan earlier this year began picking up and dropping off customers in a BMW sporting a small company logo. It's expected to serve as a model for the kind of service the company wants to offer customers at its top stores. At the soon-to-open Beverly Hills store, a full-time concierge will offer services beyond shopping, like making dinner reservations or recommending art galleries.

Lafayette 148 New York, a clothing brand that sells to Saks, Neiman Marcus and other upscale retailers, also offers a pick-up and drop-off service for customers at two Manhattan stores. Neiman Marcus Group's Bergdorf Goodman has expanded the number of translators at its New York store for international shoppers. Credit card holders for both retailers can access a 24-hour concierge service to book travel or theatre tickets.

And the Americana Manhasset Mall on Long Island, which offers a free personal shopping service for the open-air center that includes stores such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel, is working to provide more service. The personal shoppers, who used to work just with the stores at the mall, now go for training at the corporate offices or meet with the brand's corporate staff at the shopping mall so they can better serve the customer.

Saks Fifth Avenue, under new President Marc Metrick, is offering what he calls "more high-touch" experiences. At the lower Manhattan store, that can be "power lunch" packages for wardrobe styling and makeup application in less than 60 minutes. A "Saks Save Me" service lets shoppers call a dedicated number to resolve fashion emergencies within 24 hours. And in 15 U.S. markets it can send the wardrobe van.

Metrick says it's about building a better relationship. "Saks is transforming because the customer is changing," he said. "If people want to buy and transact, they can do it in so many ways."

In the most recent quarter, Saks Fifth Avenue, whose parent is Hudson's Bay Co., saw sales at stores opened at least a year slip 1.3 percent. Overall, global luxury buying is expected to be flat to up 2 percent this year to 253 billion euros to 258 billion euros ($282 billion to $288 billion), with a dip of up to 2 percent expected in the Americas region, according to Bain & Co.'s luxury study.

But with the average income for the top 1 percent of U.S. households soaring 7.7 percent to $1.36 million last year, retailers still see potential growth. Income for the richest slice rose twice as fast as it did for the remaining 99 percent, according to an analysis of tax data by economics professor Emmanuel Saez, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman's retail group and who has brought such luxury names as Giorgio Armani and Jimmy Choo to the U.S., says luxury stores are taking a page from small tony boutiques but will need to keep offering more.

"Saks is taking the most aggressive lead, and I think that everyone else will have to follow," she said. "The thing that changed is that luxury became accessible to everyone, everywhere in the world because of the internet."

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Follow Anne D'Innocenzio on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/adinnocenzio

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