This past summer I went to an Hermés store on rue St-Honoré in Paris, with the idea of buying a cardholder. The one I wanted was sold out, so I decided to browse the store, which was already full of shoppers at ten in the morning. I was almost on the way out when a thin black leather cuff with a matte black leather buckle caught my eye. Attracted by its subtle elegance, I bought it on the spot. By the time I was done with my tax refund process, the sales associate who was helping me magically appeared at my side, with the cuff gift-wrapped and swaddled inside the iconic orange shopping bag. This was one of my most pleasant shopping experiences of the past several years, and an increasingly rare one.
I am not a big shopper, but I am a keen observer of retail. And what I have noticed since luxury shops reopened after the pandemic is just how unpleasant shopping has become. There are the usual drawbacks – lack of interesting product, stratospheric prices, and salespeople who are either untutored or arrogant. During a visit to a Dior men’s boutique in SoHo some time ago a salesperson asked me if I’ve been to a Dior store before, ever. On more than one occasion, I’ve stumped salespeople with my questions, and I don’t think that I should know more about a brand than someone who is entrusted with selling it. With the demise of independent multi-brand retail and the near-religious fervor luxury brands instill in their employees, what we are witnessing in the ranks of salespeople is the primacy of brand over fashion. One of the reasons a fashion enthusiast goes shopping is to encounter another fashion enthusiast on the other side of the transaction. Such salespeople today seem like an endangered species, whereas those in monobrand stores of luxury conglomerates often act as if theirs is the only brand that matters.
To these familiar grievances, the pandemic has added a fresh one. On any given weekend there are lines out the door of most luxury boutiques in New York’s SoHo. And it seems that plenty of shoppers don’t mind waiting in them. But others do. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, I associate lines with demeaning attitudes and basic necessities, not with top-notch customer service and luxury goods. While the luxury store line is not a new phenomenon – with the rise of the Chinese consumer some flagship Paris stores had to implement crowd control – it has now become commonplace. What began as a perfectly responsible Covid-19 policy of keeping social distance in stores has remained in place even if people no longer mind exchanging germs in crowded bars and at concerts. One common policy in luxury boutiques seems to be one shopping party per one sales associate, which makes little sense. On a recent stroll on Madison Avenue, I decided to stop in at Bottega Veneta to check out new arrivals. The store guard stopped me at the door, and asked to wait for a sales associate. When I walked in a few minutes later, the spacious, hushed multi-level store was nearly empty. It felt less like luxury and more like desperation.
Perhaps the idea of retaining such a policy is to weed out those who come in merely to browse, or to prevent theft. (Bottega Veneta declined to comment for this article.) This seems misguided. First, some shoppers hate being shadowed by a sales associate. But more importantly, what luxury boutique managers and their bosses seem to miss is that quite a bit of fashion is bought on a whim. As a former Dior boutique manager liked to remind me, luxury fashion is the business of wants, not needs. Much of fashion shopping is psychological. We buy luxury because we feel good, or want to treat ourselves. On another trip to the same Bottega Veneta store last year (without standing in line) I went in with a specific purpose – to buy a pair of boots. But on top of this planned purchase I also bought a pair of shoes for my wife, just because I was in a good mood.
The decision-making function of our prefrontal cortex goes out the window especially when we travel, which is why major fashion capitals heavily rely on tourist traffic and why in Britain the DCMS committee has condemned its government’s ill-considered decision to curtail the VAT refund scheme. But nothing puts our brains back on guard and kills the pleasure center like strolling up to a luxury store only to be asked to stand in line.
To be sure, most luxury brands, buoyed by their top-tier clients, who are after all responsible for a big slice of their revenue, are doing well. And those clients don’t have to stand in line at a store. Stratification of luxury has greatly accelerated in recent years, and especially post-pandemic, with the likes of Chanel jacking up prices and opening private client stores to separate the truly wealthy from the merely well-to-do. Bottega Veneta has also been aggressively raising prices and will no longer offer seasonal discounts. The narrative of democratization of fashion at the top tier of luxury fashion now looks exactly like what it always has been – lip service. Yet the well-to-do, and even the aspirational consumers remain an important slice of the market. And in continuing with the current velvet rope door policies, luxury fashion brands are not only making people feel like they are not getting a luxury experience, they are also leaving money on the table.