Just imagine this: you step through a grand façade, instantly teleporting yourself from a sweaty and crowded city block to a huge well-lit space, a gust of cool air-conditioner breeze momentarily blowing you away (though not literally!). As you recuperate and look around, you encounter shelf after shelf of beautiful handbags, perhaps some in their own glass cases, while some as parts of life-sized diorama-esque art installations. Interjected in between are belts, scarves, wallets, billfolds, and other knick-knacks – maybe even some ready-to-wear – but the purses are undoubtedly the stars of the show (at least for you). The aroma of fresh leather, intermixing with the faint odor of perfumes, combined with the glimmer of gold and silver hardware under the dazzling lights, is enough to make you revel in the glorious view.
But that was simply the vista. Soon, you’re greeted by an army of sales associates (SAs), who instantly brighten up your day with a compliment (or two) and a glass of champagne. You ensconce yourself on a plushy sofa and admire the view while sipping on your drink, and presently get to browse through the exquisite array of handbags. You try a few on, and amidst the exaggerated aah-ing and ooh-ing of the SAs, you make your choice, their glowing compliments inflating your confidence about your decision all the more.
You then proceed to the counter… only to come across the crushing realization that you’ve forgotten to bring any cash or card whatsoever. For the first time, you also notice the other people who have suddenly materialized all around you, eyeing the purse you’re holding. “This bag is MINE,” you think, but the SAs nod dejectedly. And from the now angry mob of onlookers, your arch-nemesis steps forward, snatches your dear handbag from your arms, and marches off on a high horse (which you also swear didn’t exist until now), while everybody cheers for them. The next thing you know, you’re falling into a deep, dark abyss of regret, misgivings, and self-doubt.
Okay, that’s how the events had played out in my dream. In reality, I haven’t yet had the opportunity of experiencing shopping in a luxury brand’s flagship store (now you know what’s on my bucket list), nor do I have any arch-nemesis to fight over handbags with (in hindsight, it probably had to do something with Mean Girls).
It is, however, this rose-tinted version (at least, up to the part where I make my way to the counter) that pops up in our minds when talking about the in-person luxury shopping experience. Yes, a well-decorated and air-conditioned designer store can feel like an oasis in the middle of a desert, but what we often forget is that we have to navigate through the desert, i.e., the crowds, the dust, the grime, or, even if you’re traveling en voiture, some traffic at the very least, to get there in the first place. Hence, is shopping at the store really as glorified as it’s meant to be?
Plus, to those of us for whom wearing pants is a chore, the act of having to physically transport ourselves to the stores, no matter how tempting or luxurious, can seem tiresome. And that is where the recent advent of online shopping comes as nothing short of a blessing. Of course, it’s been in existence for what seems like time immemorial now (although actually just shy of two decades), the monumental shift towards the virtual medium following COVID regulations has no doubt been instrumental in providing us all with the comfort of shopping our favorite purses from our homes.
Now, at first glance, shopping online and shopping in-store seem a world apart, and truthfully, they are. But the end goal is very often the same – to obtain a luxury purse. Does it matter, then, which means we choose to obtain in order to get our hands on it? Well, that really depends on a lot of factors, which in turn, may end up largely affecting our ultimate satisfaction (or dissatisfaction!) with the purchase. Hence, here are some of the many ways online shopping differs from the in-store experience and how they shape our choices and perceptions.
Comfort & Convenience
Online shopping is convenient. There, I’ve said it. And in today’s world, where convenience and accessibility are often valued more than anything else, circumnavigating long waiting lines, and the hassles of commuting via the virtual medium not only seems like a natural progression but perhaps eventuality.
But how would you define “convenience”? Being able to quickly browse through a few options and place the order from anywhere you want? Not driving across town (or maybe flying halfway around the world) to get your hands on what is just a handbag at the end of the day? What about the costs of having to pay extra for shipping? Or worse, what if you’re charged for something that you don’t like and are actually returning to the retailer? Sadly, hidden charges do exist, and so do paid returns, although many brands and e-tailers have been warming up to the idea of making all shipments and returns free, especially in the luxury segment. Therefore, the convenience factor lies on a spectrum of the options available to the user – do you happen to have a lot of outlets in the vicinity of your residence/workplace? Perhaps just stopping by one day and trying on the style you’ve been eyeing for some time couldn’t hurt, and you can make an informed decision while not having to pay extra – win-win! If, however, the closest store to your place is a 2-3 hours’ drive away, or what you’re eyeing isn’t perhaps available in any outlet near you at all. In such cases, unless you aren’t traveling, online may well be your only resort, and you have my best wishes on your journey!
Speed & Efficiency
Convenience is one thing, and a very significant one at that, no doubt, but speed is entirely another. If you’re looking at the particularly desirable Hourglass bag from Gucci’s The Hacker Project, or perhaps a crocodile Proenza Schouler PS1 that’s marked well (WELL) below its retail price, it’s likely that by the time you manage to run to the store, it’ll long be gone. On the other hand, at just the press of a button, you might be able to make it yours from an e-tailer. Or maybe you’re doing some last-minute shopping to avoid your spouse’s steely stares for forgetting your anniversary (again)…and now you have the option of having your exquisite present delivered to your doorstep! Given increasingly faster delivery systems (with same-day or next-day delivery being provided by many), why would anybody want to have to physically go to the store, right?
Well, here again, there is a trade-off: the increased speed of delivery is, of course, great, but what if what you end up receiving isn’t entirely satisfactory? There needs to be just an effective (and speedy) return system in place. Can that help ward off your spouse’s eye-rolls, though? *Shivers*
Ambiance & Experience
As apparent from my nocturnal overtures, the ambiance is perhaps the biggest advantage of the in-store shopping experience. The decorative displays and the eye-catching array of handbags, in general, form a memorable part of the purchasing experience for many and may even be a big driver for impulse-buyers. For Hermès aficionados, in particular, the in-store experience plays a crucial role – the fabled “backroom” never failing to garner excited squeals from shoppers, while it’s one of the ways loyalists of the brand may be able to develop their reputations as customers in order to have their holy grails offered to them. On the other hand, if you’re shopping online, while impulsive purchases are certainly not uncommon, it’s perhaps a little easier to speculate, compare and make an informed decision, especially as it’s likely that the purse in question will be offered by multiple e-tailers (again, depending on its desirability). Still, the sensory experience of the purchase – the surroundings, maybe your gossiping colleagues or your howling infant, might not provide you with the ideal state of mind anyone would like to be in when happily shopping for luxury handbags. And you’re bound to miss the inflated praises of the SAs, if not anything else.
To SA or not to SA?
Speaking of SAs…Where do we even start? There is that devoted SA who’ll call you up as soon as anything remotely similar to what’s on your wishlist pops up at the store and maybe even face aggression from other interested parties on your behalf. There might be that SA who becomes a best friend of sorts for you, and you can’t even imagine the brand without their presence. On the other end of the spectrum, there might be that SA whose attitude could be such a big turn-off that it sours your experience at that particular store forever (although everybody has their bad days). And then, there could be that SA who is deliberately snobby to convert a “browser” into a “shopper.” If you’re shopping from the comfort of your home, on the other hand, it could be possible that the only interaction you might have is simply the chatbot that you place your order to – perfect for the introverts among us. But given the wide range of experience one might have to face, SAs form an important component in the in-store shopping experience and ultimately play a role in shaping our satisfaction levels.
Now we come to what is perhaps the most subjective bit. And, likely, none of us would ever stick to just one out of the two options. Plus, what may be satisfactory for us may not be satisfactory for others: some of us might be so confident with our choices that we could press away at the “Buy It Now” option and be utterly content with what we receive. On the other hand, there are those on the pickier side who are never really pleased with anything that they haven’t tried on and gotten validations from by everybody in the vicinity. Add to that the fact that the subtlest of details have the capacity to ruin the entire experience for us, we can sense how difficult it is actually for us to obtain the maximum satisfaction from a purchase, regardless of whether it’s bought online or at the store.
What about consignment shopping?
Until now, we’ve only considered the pros and cons of purchasing luxuries from retailers – online or otherwise. Now that we introduce resale into the equation, things get more complicated. Undoubtedly, online is the preferred medium for resellers, but it also makes the process a lot more vulnerable to misrepresentation and trust issues (especially personal-selling sites like eBay and Vinted, and my adventures on those sites still give me residual anxiety), unless sufficient authentication and verification procedures are in place. Of course, there are pop-up outlets of platforms like Fashionphile and The RealReal and renowned auction houses like Christie’s and Artcurial (although those generally last for much shorter durations). Still, the stores lack the “true experience” by a wide margin – no SAs to build loyalty with, for instance, nor the fragrance of new leather or the general aura of exclusivity that is present in brand boutiques or luxury retailers. But then again, do we really need a luxury experience when we’re buying on resale? After all, we’d consider ourselves fortunate if we managed to land a purse that matches the seller’s descriptions. Perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting fringe benefits to go along with it at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated online shopping at a rate no one could ever have anticipated (if we’re being honest, nothing about the pandemic could have been anticipated), and as such, popular retailers and brands alike, many of whom were previously reluctant to sell online, have begun to heavily invest in websites that simulate the physical buying experience as closely as possible. But online shopping has been a reality ever since the invention of the internet. The pandemic era has just magnified the phenomena rather than something entirely unexpected.
And so, the question has always remained, online or in-store, which do you prefer?
To reiterate what I’ve already said, it’s likely that all of us use a combination of both to some degree nowadays, but don’t we always have an affinity to a particular one? I, personally, haven’t had the privilege to experience a physical luxury store yet, and hence am certainly looking forward to when I can. But what about you, what do you choose?