The Internet and luxury have always been sort of mutually exclusive. The Internet is broad, democratic, and welcomes all kinds; it has changed the way that consumers interact with corporations in fundamental ways that are constantly evolving. Luxury brands are narrow, elitist, and target a very specific clientele. They require a bit of mystery and aloofness in order to be aspirational and make their traditional brand identities work, and they’re generally not interested in changing how their companies interact with…well, anyone. “The way it has always been done” is idealized and worshiped in an almost religious way, and even though many below-the-surface practices have evolved in recent years (most notably, manufacturing), the way that brands want you to perceive them has remained largely untouched for decades.
But the problem with this whole Internet thingamabob is that it’s kind of insidious and it’s changing the way that people of a variety of incomes and social standings shop and inform themselves about potential purchases. Fashion shows are no longer private events for an elite group of celebrities, editors, and clients; they’re presentations of goods that can often be seen in their entirety by average customers within minutes of their completion. There may be exclusivity left in the invitation to attend a show, but not in the information that one gains by attending.
That the clothes being presented are not immediately available to clients when their buzz is at its height is a failing of the old-school fashion industry that deserves an examination in and of itself at another time. Right now, though, it just serves to illustrate the fact that old-school luxury brands aren’t quite sure what to do about how technology is changing the ground upon which they stand. No long do they have the layers of editors and buyers in between them and those that ultimately use their products – increasingly, consumers want to interact directly with those that make and market their goods. Until recently, it seems as thought brands thought they could simply opt out of the online marketplace and everything would be fine.
It wasn’t long ago that many luxury brands scoffed at the idea of running their own websites, let alone using them to reach out to customers and sell products directly to those that they may have a difficult time reaching otherwise. I remember getting my first high-end designer purse, a nylon Prada bag that was a present for my high school graduation, and trying to find information about it online. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find much.
That was only 5 years ago, and Prada’s website at the time consisted entirely of an image from their ad campaign against a black background; there was nothing else. At the time they said that their lack of web presence was because they wished to retain the traditional, more personal boutique-customer relationship, but somewhere in the last half a decade, they realized that that wasn’t going to win them any new customers. They have since built a healthy online site to engage customers through collection photos, schedules of public events, and a fairly extensive shop.
According to a 2008 Unity study, 94% of affluent customers make online purchases, and as sales have slowed as a result of back-breaking economic conditions the world over, luxury companies are starting to realize that they have to start messing around with this newfangled Internet thing after all. Some companies still refuse to even offer their products for sale online, but the tide is changing slowly as more and more websites are embracing online shopping, web marketing, and even social media. And perhaps they’re learning from some of the thriving independent handbag designers that have embraced blog buzz and interacting directly with their customers for quite some time.
Louis Vuitton made news a few months ago by becoming one of the first of the megabrands to join microblogging site Twitter. By doing so, they can send press releases, pictures, and information about new products directly to their buyers immediately and as often as they like; magazines have months-long lead times, and disseminating most kinds of information through them simply isn’t efficient anymore when consumers are used to finding things out immediately from their favorite blogs. And then they made further company history: they created a bag that would be sold only to online customers, with no boutique availability.
Vuitton also made another big step by hosting a reception in New York City recently for members of the online fashion media (Vlad and Shannon got to attend – you can read their coverage here), and we can only hope that other brands will follow their lead out of necessity. Louis Vuitton the sort of brand with the resources and following that allow them to break new ground and test new ideas before others may consider them viable options, and other brands may be forced into the online marketplace as a way to make up for lost revenue that would normally come through traditional stores. In that regard, this may just be another way that the recession forces the fashion industry to haul itself into the 21st century, and the brands that are struggling now and can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong may come out of all of this much better for it, if they do eventually succeed in realizing that they can’t just cover their ears and pretend we’re not here anymore.
So what could these brands potentially do with the Internet and social media in order to maintain their luxury status but still reach out to their customers? With the web’s ability to target niche audiences, the possibilities are endless if the brands decide that the effort is worth it. Two days ago, I got my cable bill sorted out with Charter’s Twitter customer service representative. I didn’t have to call and slog through an automated menu until I found a way to talk to a person, I just sent a short message to their Twitter name and my problem was solved easily. If I can get personal, immediate service on something as banal as a cable bill, why can’t I send a tweet to Louis Vuitton’s Atlanta boutique and ask them if the bag I want is in stock before I drive over there? When we all live on our computers, finding their phone number, calling them up, and finding someone who can answer my question seems positively non-luxurious.
So, to all the luxury brands out there: welcome to the Internet! We’ve been talking behind your back for years! Please try to do something interesting during your stay.