What to Watch: The Age of the Gilded Customer Experience

LONDON — Step into any luxury district around the world and there’s a quiet war brewing for customer experiences — the signs of luxury slowing down are already apparent, which has prompted every brand to amp up their in-store presence with activations, special rooms and events.

In London, international shoppers proved again that they’re a force to be reckoned with as they continued to spend on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, and had previously shown signs of spending on the Black Friday weekend.

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According to the New West End Company, the West End generated a 5 percent increase in footfall on Boxing Day.

Compared to last year’s results, footfall for the West End grew by 20 percent in November and by 6 percent for the month of December. It was the strongest growth since 2019.

“The West End is the home of luxury in the U.K. — in 2023, we had a flurry of exciting openings across the year, from the unveiling of Gucci’s salon-concept store, to the transformation of Burberry’s global flagship. 2024 promises to be much of the same, and already in the pipeline are new stores from Rolex, Moncler, Georg Jensen and Saint Laurent, which secured a record lease for its six-story space on the corner of Bond Street and Grafton Street,” said Dee Corsi, chief executive officer of the New West End Company.

“That there is still such a strong pipeline of world-class brands set to open their doors in 2024 and beyond underlines the enduring appeal of the West End and the value of giving consumers an elevated shopping experience,” she added.

Consumers are making their cash count for every thread they buy and in return they are expecting brands to demonstrate the high quality of the products they’re buying into.

Inside Swaine.

English heritage company Swaine sits on a 7,000-square-foot space with three floors selling bridle leather goods with onsite bespoke services and a workshop with seven artisans inside the store.

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The Age of the Gilded Customer Experience

On the lower ground floor, the artisans bring customers’ creations to life, with prices ranging from 3,500 pounds for a minimal briefcase going anywhere up to 20,000 pounds for a trunk.

The products are made by one artisan from start to finish, on average taking about 30 hours and involving 200 steps. Some items can take up to a year to finish, however, depending on the commission.

But Swaine is a rarity on the street, where a sea of French and Italian luxury megabrands dominate.

“Sad to say but I think the bigger brands now are unstoppable and as long as we remain in a recruitment market, they should continue to dominate,” said Erwan Rambourg, global head of consumer and retail research at HSBC, explaining that these players — Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermès, Dior and Cartier among them — have scale advantages for media spending, real estate locations, better management and other business fundamentals.

Simon Callery’s “O Y Wallspine,” 2023, and Franco Mazzucchelli’s “Bieca Decorazione,” 2010.

When Gucci relocated from its former location on the corner of Old Bond Street to New Bond Street, it did so quietly with a lit-up Gucci sign outside. But still, it was apparent, taking up 15,000 square feet with five floors inside a Grade-II listed building that was founded in 1913 as an art gallery.

Its aim remains to be crystal clear — to create an experience.

Downstairs is dedicated to its menswear offering, while handbags, fine jewelry, women’s ready-to-wear and footwear can be found on its other floors.

There’s even a special room dedicated to exotic handbags and on display in the room are archive bags from the Gucci vault, carefully labeled, emulating the brand’s “Gucci Cosmos” exhibition at 180 Studios at 180 The Strand.

The store features Gucci’s first European salon on the top floor reserved for VIPs and top-tier clients by appointment only. The room will change with each appointment as it will be tweaked to fit the tastes of the client coming in, from the art on display, edit of clothes and leather goods to the food served.

Dior’s 30 Avenue Montaigne flagship in Paris offers valet parking service with the first floor showcasing the house’s exotic leathers, eveningwear and fine jewelry collections. Top clients can even stay in the store overnight if they so wish, all for a price, of course.

In December, Saint Laurent opened its own palace-like store on 123 Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the brand’s largest store yet in Paris with over four levels, the penultimate being a large VIP suite with a giant circular mirror and metal furniture by American artist Donald Judd, and warmer, wooden seating by Rudolph Schindler.

At Van Cleef & Arpels, a dedicated waiting area takes clients through the brand’s heritage and craftsmanship before they are greeted with a sales associate.

Jewelry brands such as Mejuri, Missoma and Kimai have incorporated private spaces in their stores for one-to-one appointments that can include everything from customers getting their ears pierced for the first time to sitting down to commission a bespoke piece of jewelry.

“We used to host our customers in our offices [before opening a retail space] then we started off with a showroom and our assumption was that the existing Mejuri community would come. But we saw that 60 percent of the transactions that happened were from new customers. It made us think about how we could build a stronger connection with our community via activations and events. We opened our first store in Toronto, and then New York,” said Noura Sakkijha, cofounder of Mejuri, who has now opened 29 stores globally.

Even though the competition is high, smaller in-store activations don’t go unnoticed.

In the lead-up to Christmas, Moschino hosted a day of chocolate making for its clients and friends of the brand at its Conduit Street location in London; Louis Vuitton took over Claridge’s halls with a tree inspired by travel, and Givenchy celebrated its runway book with a cocktail reception at its New Bond Street store.

The novelty of a new handbag can wear off, which is why experiences are more important than ever.

At Rolls-Royce’s showroom on Berkeley Street, if a customer is serious about purchasing a car, they are directed to a customization suite for them to preview the different samples available, from fine leather swatches, wood inlays to the spectrum of Rolls-Royce paints.

The custom cars come to life at Roll-Royce’s headquarters in Goodwood, situated near Chichester, in the south of England, where the completion of a bespoke car is presented in a dramatic fashion inside a large studio with curtains, with the team producing a short film about the project that’s unveiled behind the curtain with flashing spotlights and high electro-operatic music.

YSL Flagship - Paris Champs Elysées - dec 2023
Saint Laurent’s flagship in Paris.

The boom of 2023’s big trend — quiet luxury — has made brands realize what’s on the inside really counts more than ever, especially in a time of economic and political turmoil.

“The brands at the top of the pyramid are outperforming [others] because high-net-worth individuals are naturally gravitating towards something more understated,” said Edouard Aubin, head of luxury and sporting goods at Morgan Stanley.

“During the ongoing economic crisis, the concept of quiet luxury is increasing in significance as we look to focus more on value, longevity, and discreet designs and logos over conspicuous consumption,” agreed Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at Euromonitor International.

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