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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Shopping Events Are Back. Here’s How to Make the Most of Them

As digital advertising costs climb, fashion brands are embracing events like in-store happy hours, trunk shows and parties in various formats to generate brand awareness and drive sales.
Photographer takes mirror selfie of two girls in a sunglasses store.
Sunglasses brand Krewe hosted a crawfish boil in May, an endeavour that required the brand to obtain five different city permits and ship 1,000 pounds of live seafood from Louisiana to New York’s LaGuardia airport. (Rupert Ramsay/BFA.com)

Key insights

  • With the pandemic firmly in the rearview mirror, fashion companies are once again embracing in-person events from trunk shows to shopping parties.
  • Utilising this form of brand marketing is more critical than ever as social media has become a less favourable channel for advertising in recent years.
  • By reallocating budget from digital marketing, brands can splurge on big creative events that leave a memorable impression on consumers as well as smaller in-store parties to drive direct sales.

On a chilly May afternoon, lucky pedestrians on Manhattan’s Columbus Avenue encountered a yellow food truck offering beignets and cold brew coffee, while a brass band played steps away.

To get their hands on the treats, passersby didn’t have to pay, but rather just share their email address and a few minutes of their time to learn about women’s apparel brand MM.LaFleur, which recently opened a store on the block.

Most happily obliged, fetched their beignets and went on their way without actually stepping foot in the store. But that was enough for MM.LaFleur, which hosted a series of similar events across the city to promote its new summer collection last month.

“These events can be costly and expensive,” said Sarah LaFleur, the brand’s founder and chief executive, “but we don’t expect to close a transaction.”

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Brass band performing in the Upper west Side.
MM.LaFleur tapped an all-female brass band to perform as part of its travelling beignet truck events. (MM.LaFleur)

The point, rather, is to remind the local customers that the store is nearby and be top-of-mind next time they’re in need of a blazer or stretchy trousers. The beignet and happy music, meanwhile, adds another positive association to the brand.

With the pandemic firmly in the rearview mirror, fashion companies like MM.LaFleur are once again embracing in-person events from trunk shows to shopping parties to drum up brand awareness and, in some cases, drive customers directly to the cash register. Utilising this form of brand marketing, marketers say, is more critical than ever, as social media has become a less favourable channel for advertising in recent years, thanks to decreases in ad effectiveness alongside increases in ad rates.

“Performance marketing continues to be as unpredictable as ever and hard to understand, and for us, this is a direct way to reach our potential customers and communicate and leave an impression that an ad on Facebook never can,” said LaFleur.

It also helps that, post-pandemic, consumers crave social activities. Retail sales in the US, for instance, rose marginally in April, in part driven by spending at restaurants. The travel industry expects 2023 to be close to a record-setting spending year.

“In the post-Covid era, and people want to see people; people want to feel special,” said Savannah Engel, a fashion publicist who revamped her business, an agency called Savi, last year to prioritise event marketing over traditional PR for her clients.

Go Big or Go Home

By reallocating budget from digital marketing, brands can splurge on big creative events that leave a memorable impression on consumers and drive store traffic too.

New Orleans-based sunglasses brand Krewe, a client of Engel’s, recently hosted a crawfish boil outside of its New York flagship in the Meatpacking District, an endeavour that required Krewe to obtain five different city permits and ship 1,000 pounds of live seafood from Louisiana to New York’s LaGuardia airport.

Crawfish boil on rainy day in New York City.
KREWE Krawfish Boil 2023 Krewe's crawfish boil on May 20. (Rupert Ramsay/BFA.com/Rupert Ramsay/BFA.com)

The event wasn’t free for attendees — tickets cost between $75 and $135 — and Krewe donated $5,000 of proceeds to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. It was an investment for Krewe, said Amanda Brody, the company’s VP of brand marketing, but it resulted in plenty of sunglasses sales that day — the rainiest day in May — in addition to generating awareness for the relatively small brand.

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“The sheer volume of people that were not familiar with the brand, being able to come in and touch the product in real life is significantly more valuable than being targeted online,” Brody said. “And once we get them [in-store], they’re going to stay in the brand sphere.”

The biggest, most costly events will often yield the least tangible returns. With large scale events where attendees aren’t necessarily shopping the products — whether it’s a cookout, a fashion week party or a travelling beignet truck — the ultimate goal is to provide consumers a positive experience with the brand. Some may convert a few days later, and some will forget about it altogether. Others may come back to the brand months or even years later.

“Oftentimes, you can’t tell if the event is a success,” LaFleur said. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there and your brand out there and say, ‘I’m going to do this because I believe it will have an impact.’”

Test Out Different Formats

There are opportunities, for smaller shopping events to more directly drive sales, such as trunk shows and in-store shopping events. In addition to large seasonal activations like its beignet truck parties, MM.Lafleur throws monthly shopping events in its Bryant Park and Washington, DC showrooms, hosted by a collaborating brand or corporate partners like real estate investment firm Pretium Partners and law firm Labaton Sucharow.

Marie Oliver, a North Carolina-based women’s apparel brand that also works with Engel has adopted a regional events strategy combining up to 10 small, in-store trunk shows per year with six to eight intimate, shopping-free dinners for local media, influencers and high-profile community members that require more resources and planning. Typically, the brand will host events in multiple formats in each city it visits, like Houston, Dallas and Charleston, said founder Sarah Evenson.

While these dinners don’t directly boost the brand’s sales, there is a lift in social media engagement following each event. They have also contributed to an overall sales increase: Marie Oliver’s e-commerce channel has grown 175 percent in the past year, according to Evenson.

“We as consumers are constantly bombarded with advertising,” she said. “With these in-person events, you’re taking them and bringing them into your world … It creates a memorable evening that gives them a personal connection with the brand for them to be a long-term consumer.”

Pick a Partner

One way to introduce new customers to a brand through an event is to find a co-host, whether that’s another like-minded fashion business or a food provider with its own following. Partners will often split the cost of the event, according to Engel — an easy way to save money without having to skimp.

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New York-based designer Jonathan Cohen has experimented with a number of shopping events at his Upper East Side pop-up store, many of which involve a partner. He’s hosted trunk shows for brands he’s friendly with, like hatmaker Gigi Burris and book signings for fashion writers. When a friend started a churro business, Cohen invited him to cater a happy hour soiree in the store’s backyard. The designer has even invited top clients to host their own shopping parties at the store, creating an immediate word-of-mouth effect for the brand.

Inside Jonathan Cohen's Madison Avenue pop-up store.
Inside Jonathan Cohen's Madison Avenue pop-up store. (Jonathan Cohen)

“It was always a lot because we were having a party and would be running up and down helping clients and altering stuff for them,” Cohen said. “But we always see our sales skyrocket when we do these events.”

At Cohen’s more casual gatherings, the more people that attend, the bigger the attraction becomes. Pedestrians passing by the store will often come inside when there’s a big crowd. Ultimately, in the post-pandemic world, consumers are eager for connection.

“The events that seem to work the best are those that bring together a really interesting community of people,” said Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group. “Allowing customers to come together … works really well, especially if the founder is there.”

Editor’s note: This article was amended on June 2, 2023. A previous version misstated the amount of proceeds Krewe was able to donate to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.

Further Reading

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About the author
Cathaleen Chen
Cathaleen Chen

Cathaleen Chen is Retail Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and drives BoF’s coverage of the retail and direct-to-consumer sectors.

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