SYDNEY, Australia — Consumer culture is changing fast, thanks in part to a constant stream of new technologies and tensions between global and local interests. Today’s consumer is ever more demanding, expecting a multi-sensory shopping experience and one that is emotional, social and memorable. How will stores of the future captivate this consumer?
This question and more were ardently discussed at The Business of Fashion’s local VOICES event held at the Sydney Opera House on March 30, with the support of principal partner, QIC Global Real Estate. ‘Close Encounters’ saw local and international thinkers, entrepreneurs and industry insiders mulling over global topics, and was a prelude to BoF's VOICES, an intimate, invitation-only event to be held just outside London in December.
Among the attendees were Christine Centenara, fashion director of Vogue Australia; Kellie Hush, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar Australia; Chris Kyvetos, creative director of Sneakerboy; Nicole Warne, blogger and founder of Gary Pepper Vintage; designer Dion Lee; Giovanni Nizzi, director of MaxMara Australia; Alexie O'Brien, Kit & Ace's head of Australia and New Zealand; and Margaret Zhang, blogger and founder of Shine By Three.
Leading industry figures navigated their way through the ever-changing and turbulent retail sector, and first up on the agenda was the store experience and how to conserve the consumer visit. “The most important recipe is to sacrifice, not just think of the commercial approach but something more creative — always mixing fashion with other things,” said Armand Hadida, founder of Parisian retailer L’Eclaireur, who opened his store more than 35 years ago as an “experience” and who continues to build a bridge between the classic idea of a store and e-business.
“We are learning and always pushing this experience...we are looking to surprise. Consumers today have their own codes; we need to anticipate their language. We have to be ready to sacrifice, dream, surprise and even shock. They don’t want to follow the old codes.” Hadida referred to L’Eclaireur moving into kitchen design with No Name Kitchens as an innovative approach to retail, and said retail was not all about results and margins. “It’s a question of passion,” he said emphatically.
Kim Bui Kollar, who as director of special projects for Pedder Group — a part of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group — oversees one of the largest designer portfolios in Greater China listed “emotion, creativity, authenticity and discovery” as key to the success of retail. To achieve these things, “you can’t just make an impression with a device alone,” she said. “We have been toying with the idea of a store not just selling things, but engaging with the public, and ultimately those four things I listed should lead to a unique experience for our customers.”
However, Hadida noted: “Even if you are very good and you know how to change and bring something very personal, it’s not enough…because the customer who comes into the store now, they know much more than you.”
People don’t need more handbags or more sneakers.... It’s [about] having sales associates or a team who can really connect to the customers.
“Physical retail isn’t dead,” Aesop chief executive officer Michael O’Keeffe added, although he said retailers could no longer survive on product alone. He argued that there is a place for a physical and digital experience to co-exist in the retail landscape and that there is now an “interwoven mesh” rather than one dominant selling source.
Having grown the Aesop skincare range from one store in Melbourne in 1987 to a global brand with outlets in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, O’Keeffe said customer service is more critical than ever before. “How many of our customers can actually remember with pride their last customer experience in our stores? I can remember hotel experiences and restaurant experiences but retail really needs to grab that by the mantle and connect,” he said.
When moderator Amed pressed the panellists to explain how creativity translated into business results, O’Keeffe said it was tough. “It’s about relevancy,” he said. “We increasingly live in a surplus society. People don’t need more handbags or more sneakers.... It’s almost back to the future with retail and having sales associates or a team who can really connect to the customers.”
Rounding out the second half of the event was a panel of renowned industry experts discussing how brands from distant markets can break into the global marketplace. New Zealand designer Karen Walker, founder of her eponymous fashion and eyewear label; Nicky and Simone Zimmermann, Australian co-founders of now global clothing and swimwear label Zimmermann; and Justin O’Shea, the newly appointed creative director of Brioni, agreed that while being distanced from the northern hemisphere had its challenges, it wasn’t an excuse not to compete globally.
“You always have to show up,” said Walker. “Technology obviously allows you to connect with people very easily but nothing beats walking into a room. We’re the number one brand virtually everywhere our eyewear is sold, for instance, but I always show up.”
Simone Zimmermann said she and her sister were able to turn the challenge of distance into an opportunity by establishing their successful swimwear label away from the scrutiny of the global fashion world. “Then, when we were ready and the time was right, we were able to go outside of Australia and pursue our goals,” explained Simone Zimmermann. “It helps to penetrate markets globally coming from a unique perspective,” agreed Nicky Zimmermann.
Fashion is a dinner conversation in every restaurant, every household, every Starbucks, because fashion has infiltrated the world through social media.
BoF’s editor-at-large, Tim Blanks, who moderated the panel, raised the importance of the fashion back-story to a brand. “A point of difference is everything…and we can definitely attribute that to where we come from,” said Simone Zimmermann.
“Fashion is so much about discovering what’s new and by being based in Australia or New Zealand you’re automatically an outsider, and in some ways that makes you more interesting,” agreed Walker.
However, O’Shea said it was actually irrelevant where you were from. “I think the world which used to be so big has shrunk, there’s so much curiosity with what’s happening in China, what’s happening in the Middle East. Everybody kind of knows a little bit about everything.
“Fashion is a dinner conversation in every restaurant, every household, every Starbucks, because fashion has infiltrated the world through social media,” he continued.
Certainly the power of social media was a talking point — in particular, social platforms such as Instagram. “One huge bit of luck that we’ve had with our brand, is it’s no coincidence that social media, Instagram especially, blew up at the same time as Karen Walker eyewear,” said Walker. “Because when you’re doing a selfie it’s easier [to show a face] than showing the full outfit. And when you have frames that are a really recognisable shape, that’s very Instagrammable.”
Simone Zimmermann said Instragram had helped the Zimmermann brand reach beyond borders of their home market too, as people who travel and wear their product, post memorable moments. “We don’t use it directly as a selling tool but it is. It’s a great, beautiful way of instantly expressing what your brand is about, and it’s not geographically selected.”
Of course, social media is just one component of the multifaceted shopping experience that today’s consumers expect retailers to use to win them over. But how to balance these components to create the best retail narrative and then translate that into an unforgettable experience is a challenge that clearly resonated with all panellists.
“I think the story is important,” said Walker. “The product has to be exceptional: there has to be a strong idea there. Fashion [retail] for us — we started with ready to wear — has always been about more than dresses. It’s a platform for ideas.”
The event in Sydney was the latest in a series of local events leading up to VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, to be held at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire between 1-3 December 2016. For more information on VOICES and to register your interest in attending or for sponsorship opportunities, click here.