How The Luxury Shopping Experience Has Drastically Changed During COVID-19

Light blue tote bag carried on the platter

New York’s three-Michelin-starred sushi spot Masa is now offering takeout for $800. It comes in a wax-sealed wood box along with a hand-drawn illustration of your meal and two glass bottles of sauce. In the same way that the food industry has to think outside of the box in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, luxury fashion is re-examining how to create its own high-end retail experiences while doors are closed. While fervor over amassing new clothes, shoes, and handbags has stalled amidst larger social and political issues, a re-imagined luxury shopping experience is important to retailers who rely on loyal shoppers. Today, fashion houses, department stores, and e-commerce sites are leaning on creative ways to deliver it — for wealthy clients who spend millions on couture, and also for those who make a select few high-end purchases a year but are loyal to brands and retailers they love and collectively yield a lot of buying power.

Prior to widespread travel restrictions and social distancing measures being put into place, members of Farfetch’s invite-only private client program enjoyed extravagant in-person perks. “We’ve taken clients to runway shows, we’ve taken them to Couture Week, we’ve organized dinners with Donatella Versace at her home,” says Jamie Freed, global vice president, private client at Farfetch, to The Zoe Report. Though these exclusive jaunts are no longer happening, the Fashion Concierge arm of the business continues to field and execute client requests. Leveraging connections with high-end brands and boutiques across the globe, Farfetch is able to source everything from rare watches to antique furniture.

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“Before the COVID pandemic hit, the most-requested items were hard-to-find handbags and really exciting fashion items that were shown on the runway and [are] hard to find in the store,” Freed says. “With people having to spend more time at home, they’ve stopped requesting fashion.” Instead, she adds, there’s increased demand for home decor and entertainment, a category that Farfetch gladly fulfills at no cost, even if they're better known for fashion. “We had a customer ask us to source a limited-edition Legend of Zelda Nintendo system. [Nintendo] only produced 1,000 units back in the early-'90s, and the client wanted one that was still factory-sealed and unused. We hunted it down in Tokyo and had it shipped halfway around the world. It came with a price tag of $20,000.”

Natalie Archambo, who lives in Austin, Texas, was invited into Net-A-Porter’s EIP (Extremely Important Person) fold a few months ago. Among benefits Archambo and other EIPs enjoy are notifications of new arrivals prior to them going on the site, and a personal shopper curates, selects, and places holds on pieces that may sell out. Another perk is access to Net-A-Porter’s exclusive virtual programming.

“Over the past few months, we have worked to create a curated series of exciting moments and livestream content that EIPs can access from the leisure of their own homes,” says Libby Page, Net-A-Porter’s senior fashion market editor. Archambo was taken aback recently when she got an email from the site asking if she’d like to participate in a Zoom call with Stella McCartney.

“I thought, 'Is this really going to be with Stella McCartney?' But I love the brand and I’ve been a longtime fan of hers so I said, 'Sure, I’d love to join.’ It was hosted by Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-A-Porter’s global buying director, and there were about 30 people on the call. It was wonderful to get to know [McCartney] and hear about the sustainable roots of the brand. I never thought I’d have that opportunity, so it was great.”

Whereas Farfetch and Net-A-Porter have long been working with clients virtually — which, in many ways, has made the transition to all-digital perks more seamless — department stores and boutiques that have traditionally welcomed VIPs through their doors are having to make bigger adjustments.

“When we went into lockdown in March, I had to really adapt to a new way of styling,” says Marci Hirshleifer, VIP personal shopper and stylist at luxury department store Hirshleifers in Manhasset, New York. While Hirshleifer has worked with out-of-town clients over email and WeChat for years, when the pandemic hit, those became her sole sources of client interaction. “I now spend my days styling looks for my Instagram, pulling pieces for my clients, buying collections virtually, and making sure new things that come in get sent to my clients ASAP.”

A family-owned business, Hirshleifers offers a VIP program that’s accessible to anyone who’s interested in a more intimate, personalized shopping experience. “Traditionally, the VIP status was for our highest-spending clients, but now it really varies,” says Hirshleifer. Whether a celebrity is looking to buy an entire wardrobe for their New York home or a young professional is purchasing their first Chanel bag, Marci and her team will work with them individually, pre-selecting items for them to shop, keeping them abreast of new arrivals, and scheduling periodic styling sessions. “Not everyone likes that shopping style, but it’s definitely an open invite for those who do.”

Hirshleifers closed in March, but more recently has joined the ranks of luxury boutiques across the globe welcoming customers back into stores. Changes to the in-store experience range from the practical and necessary (i.e., mask requirements and signs encouraging social distancing) to the noticeably more modern and digitally-enhanced. Both family-owned businesses and global retailers are re-imagining in-store shopping to fit new customer habits and to bridge the online and in-person experiences.

Courtesy Burberry

Burberry’s new Shenzhen, China store was slated to open long before the onset and subsequent spread of the coronavirus, but its design includes new technology that aims to bridge that gap. Billed by Burberry as luxury’s first social retail store, the brand’s Shenzhen boutique is a collaboration between the luxury house and Tencent Technology. Through QR codes and a dedicated WeChat mini-program, shoppers can discover the inspiration behind hero pieces, book styling appointments, and make reservations at the store’s restaurant, Thomas’s Cafe. Three fitting rooms each have their own creative concept and dedicated playlists, and can be pre-booked through WeChat. Additionally, the Shenzhen location boasts a dedicated capsule collection of ready-to-wear pieces. These offerings appeal to a younger generation of shoppers while also providing a top-tier, customizable experience that still allows for discovery while social distancing. Burberry’s customers are able to shop in a way that is catered exactly to their needs.

As retailers roll out virtual programming and inventive in-store experiences, they must also keep in mind what items are currently most likely to resonate with shoppers. Farfetch, Hirshleifers, and Net-A-Porter have all seen decreases across ready-to-wear and a significant uptick in loungewear purchases; lingerie sales at Farfetch have doubled since March.

“One of the blessings for us is that a lot of what our buy is now, and what it’s always been, is much less formal than what other department stores might select from luxury brands,” says Hirshleifer. “We buy clothes that we would wear, and for the most part we’re dressed pretty casually every day.” Roam the store and you’ll find nylon Louis Vuitton Bermuda shorts, Dior anoraks, and highly-coveted sneakers in both Hirshleifer’s sneaker department and the store’s dedicated Kith shop. While purchasing habits have shifted, even for luxury shoppers, certain categories are still worth spending four or five figures on.

“What I find really interesting is while there’s this shift toward more casual fashion items in clothing, we’ve actually seen people not hesitating to make investment purchases when it comes to fine jewelry and watches,” Freed says. “We saw sales in those two categories increase.” To that end, Farfetch is partnering with Phillips and Sotheby’s auction houses this fall for virtual master classes on curating fine jewelry and watch collections. New technology that will allow for augmented reality try-ons is also slated to launch soon. “Imagine you see an incredible Audemars Piguet or Rolex watch, and it’s located halfway around the world,” Freed says. “Through the technology, you’ll be able to try it on your wrist before you make the purchase.”

Industry-wide, there’s a general consensus and understanding that COVID has changed the ways consumers define luxury experiences. And it’s likely that those sentiments — along with how brands and retailers have adapted to cater to them — will be the norm even once the pandemic subsides.

The idea of a luxury experience has changed a lot over the last few months,” Hirshleifer says. “In the past it might have looked like a big dressing room in our store filled with selects, whereas now I think a lot of luxury experiences come from how safe and secure people feel in the current climate. What we really focus on now is making sure [our clients] know that we understand coming into the store might be overwhelming, and we try and make their shopping experience luxurious through different approaches, tailored just to them.”