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Stores Still Critical to Wooing Men, But Leaders Re-Wiring for Digital Age

In the age of e-commerce, physical flagships are still critical to engaging male luxury consumers, though market leaders are integrating their online and offline presence to create new digitally enhanced stores.
Gucci Brera boutique in Milan | Source: Gucci
By
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent years, the growth of the men's fashion market has outpaced that of womenswear, driven by factors like shifting workplace culture, the rise of new sports and entertainment icons, wider access to style inspiration and advice, and high demand from emerging economies like China, where men have traditionally exerted greater control over purchasing power than women.

Importantly, the maturation of e-commerce has also played a significant role in driving increased sales of men’s fashion and accessories. “Men are often creatures of habit when it comes to their purchases,” said Luca Solca, a luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas. “As they often re-order the same product from the same brands, online is perfect. Men don't like shopping as much as women and don't want to invest the same time as women.”

Indeed, the menswear boom has coincided with the growth of a wide range of e-commerce businesses offering men efficient, hassle-free shopping experiences, from vertically-integrated, subscription commerce start-ups like Frank & Oak to luxury e-tailers like Mr Porter, which combines curated product, styling advice and same-day delivery. Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s buying director, describes the site’s typical customer as “a professional guy, relatively successful in that he has a high income, but his lifestyle means that he is working long hours; he is travelling a lot for work and, as a result, not really wanting to spend his off-duty time traipsing round the shops trying to buy clothes.”

I think there will always be a need for brick-and-mortar, especially in the luxury sector.

And yet, in recent years, a slew of major fashion brands have invested millions of dollars in traditional brick-and-mortar stores explicitly targeting men. Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Ralph Lauren, Hermès, Lanvin, Dolce & Gabbana, Coach, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin have all opened physical stores aimed solely at men. Luxury menswear brands Berluti and Brioni have both invested significant sums in physical flagships, while Dunhill is planning a major retail rollout. Amongst department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue has remodelled its men's floors and Bergdorf Goodman's dedicated men's flagship is being entirely revamped.

“I think there will always be a need for brick-and-mortar, especially in the luxury sector,” said Pierre Denis, chief executive of Jimmy Choo. “The male luxury consumer is getting more sophisticated and has a deeper knowledge of fashion. He is highly attuned to luxury and interested in the detail of construction and material that is used and the overall engineering that goes into our products. It is important to provide a comprehensive experience through digital, but primarily through brick-and-mortar, where customers can experience the product first-hand and talk to our informed sales staff.”

Tellingly, many of these stores are equipped with bars, cafes and other experiential elements designed to entice men who don’t traditionally relish time spent shopping to not only visit but linger. Dunhill’s Bourdon House, a Georgian mansion in London’s Mayfair once inhabited by the Duke of Westminster, even houses a barber, spa and screening room.

tailoring services and other product customisation experiences are also important. "Personalisation and customisation are increasingly important facets of the luxury experience across all of our categories. In particular, in recent years we have seen our male clientele becoming more and more knowledgeable and sophisticated in their choices and needs," said Robert Triefus, chief marketing officer of Gucci. "This is why we decided to open our first men's flagship in Europe in the heart of Milan, in the historic Brera district. The store provides our most comprehensive offering for men, including a dedicated area for the Gucci made-to-measure program."

But for today’s fashion consumers, the path to purchase increasingly involves both physical and digital touchpoints. “Our forecasts show that the majority of retail sales will still occur in the store,” said Adam Silverman, an analyst at Forrester Research. “However, this year, 52 percent of retail sales will be influenced by digital channels,” he continued. “Customers will continue to shop in physical stores due to the enhanced engagement possibilities of interacting with the product and associates. [But] digital will play a growing role in this engagement, online, as well as in the store, where the digital and physical experiences will converge.”

“For commodity items, e-commerce will continue to put physical stores out of business — think Blockbuster and Borders,” explained Silverman, referring to the once mighty video rental and book store chains, which both filed for bankruptcy in the face of competition from online players. But in the luxury fashion market, where tactility, brand storytelling, expert advice and human service all remain critical, forward-thinking companies are blending the best of the physical flagship experience with the best of the web to develop new digitally enhanced stores that offer brands major advantages, both operationally and in terms of customer engagement.

New digital tools and technologies aren't just fancy add-ons, but the building blocks around which the rest of the retail experience is built.

According to Silverman, leading stores are pushing their in-store experience and service further by building and exposing a single unified view of each of their customers across platforms, allowing sales associates to better understand their individual profiles in order to deliver a more relevant experience. They are also exposing inventory across the enterprise, allowing associates to find the right product for customers even if it’s located in another store or warehouse; implementing a new breed of “clientelling” and mobile point-of-service (mPOS) apps; and leveraging robust digital content.

Unfortunately, for many fashion brands, deploying in-store technology has been more about driving short-term public relations hype than real business results. But for market leaders, "new digital tools and technologies aren't just fancy add-ons, but the building blocks around which the rest of the retail experience is built," wrote Conrad Lisco of Co Collective, a New York-based start-up brand consultancy, in a recent post entitled "What Walmart, Tesla and Burberry Stores Have in Common."

Indeed, Burberry has done more than any major fashion brand to integrate its physical and digital retail presence, launching a new digital store concept which brings together immersive multimedia content, a platform for digitally-enabled events, sophisticated "clienteling" apps, web-style analytics, and in-store collection and returns for purchases made online.

But competitors may not be too far behind. “It is now [Gucci’s] priority to provide this seamless experience between our physical stores and e-business through technology and service innovations,” said Triefus. “By unlocking the potential of omni-channel retailing, we see a great opportunity to deepen and enrich the engagement with our clients.”

Nimble upstarts like Bonobos and Sneakerboy are also paving the way forward with innovative digital retail models that leverage experiential stores — linked to online inventory — that act as powerful tools for driving brand awareness and engagement, while also delivering higher productivity per square foot than traditional stores, which devote roughly 50 percent of their real estate to stock rooms. "Physical stores are becoming multi-purpose spaces designed for engagement, not just transaction," said Lisco. "The emphasis is less on selling and more on creating a richer, more tangible expression of the brand."

Leading fashion brands have long understood the power of creating immersive retail temples to entice customers. But to ensure future success in a highly competitive market, the store template will need to be rethought — and rewired — to blend the power of physical retail as a platform for service and experience with the efficiencies of the Internet to create something completely new: a digital store.

Visit the new BoF Menswear Hub to discover more menswear news and analysis from BoF correspondents and around the web, as well as a live index of the most influential people and retailers shaping the global menswear market.

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