By  on December 28, 2006

PARIS — Is the way to a luxury customer's wallet through her stomach?

Perhaps, which is why a growing number of luxury flagships and multibrand retailers now offer food products and services as a value-added feature, revenue stream and an attraction in and of themselves.

This winter alone, Gucci has christened a cafe in its new Ginza building in Tokyo, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong has opened a "chocolate room" at its flagship, Dolce & Gabbana is serving up martinis at its new Shanghai flagship, and Hermès is shepherding shoppers to cafe tables at its new Seoul maison and its expanded Ginza store in Tokyo. Next year, Italian eateries will open in the new Ginza flagships of Giorgio Armani and Bulgari.

Laduree, one of Paris' marquee pastry purveyors, is gearing up for an international expansion push to place its colorful macaroons — featured prominently in Sofia Coppola's film "Marie Antoinette" — in Mitsukoshi in Tokyo, Villa Moda in Kuwait and the renovated Plaza Hotel complex in New York.

"I definitely see a strong link between fashion and food since they are both an important part of our lifestyle," said Shiekh Majed Al-Sabah, president of Villa Moda, who disclosed he has seven food-related projects in the works, including branches of Bubo from Barcelona, TMSK from Shanghai and The Temple Club from Ho Chi Minh City. "You are talking to a much bigger customer base in food, but using the power of the fashion brands to attract. I actually established Villa Moda Food Co., which will handle all these operations."

Andrew Keith, vice president of merchandising at Lane Crawford, described the retailer's showcase of six international gourmet chocolate brands as a "huge success," adding, "the idea is to bring newness into the marketplace."

Lane Crawford also has a restaurant specializing in Mediterranean cuisine at its flagship IFC location, plus Champagne and martini bars scattered throughout various departments. "We're looking at how we can incorporate that into other locations," Keith noted. "The customers are really open to experimenting."

For example, he cited brisk sales of Dom Perignon in a special package in collaboration with industrial designer Marc Newson.Certain designers and retailers have long incorporated restaurants, cafes or bars into their brand universe; Giorgio Armani and the London retailer Joseph frequently are cited as pioneers. Department stores Harrods and Selfridges in London have long been renowned for their food halls, but rival Harvey Nichols took it one step further in the Nineties, installing a fifth floor on its Knightsbridge flagship to house an expensive restaurant, cafe, coffee bar, wine store and gourmet food department that became an immediate success.

But the infiltration of fine food and drinks on the fashion floor is accelerating.

In Japan, where luxury spending is diversifying into fine food and wine, retailers are adapting quickly. Earlier this month, Isetan unveiled a revamped food hall that included a special corner for wines and additive-free sakes.

Lineups for a table at Gucci's Ginza cafe are commonplace on weekends, and the tiramisu, dusted with cocoa powder in the form of the "GG" logo, is among the most popular dishes.

"Our customers appreciate the best of everything — that goes for food and drink as well as handbags, shoes and clothing," said Gucci chief executive officer Mark Lee. "They also appreciate exclusive experiences, and that's what the Ginza Cafe provides."

Gucci operates only two cafes in its network of 210 stores (the other is in Milan) and has no plans to open more eateries. Still, Lee acknowledged the Ginza cafe encourages, enhances and probably extends customer visits and spending. "It is more about offering a unique service to increase visits and amount of time per visit in the Ginza flagship building," Lee said.

Christian Blanckaert, executive vice president of Hermès International in charge of international affairs, said the company's two new cafes were designed to solidify Hermès boutiques as a destination, particularly at its Seoul location in Dosan Park, which is off the main luxury strip.

"We have to find a unique way to bring an extra service," he said, noting that tasting adds to the sensations of sight, feel and smell that are already part of the luxury shopping experience.

Executives acknowledged that running a full-scale restaurant, while lucrative, is a daunting and risky venture, given that bad food or service could taint the image of a fashion brand."We are very modest in scope," Blanckaert said, noting the Hermès Ginza location serves only coffee, albeit a special blend. A cappuccino costs 1,680 yen, or $14.31 at current exchange.

Al-Sabah said spending on food in the Middle East is massive, easily reaching 250 to 300 euros, or about $328 to $394, respectively, per person at events.

"People from our part of the world do not think twice when it comes to food," he said. "I strongly recommend all the brands to capitalize from the success of the food business in our region and start opening up their restaurants ASAP."

Laduree president David Holder said he's positioning his pastries as luxury accessories — with productivity that can rival a cosmetics counter's — which has fanned broad interest from fashion retailers eager to add sweets to the mix. "It's fun for the shop. It's something unique," said Holder, noting he recently had negotiations with Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York.

Founded in 1862, Laduree first expanded outside of France last year when it opened a location at Harrods in London. Laduree also has outlets in the Boulevard Haussmann flagship of Printemps in Paris and in Geneva's Bon Genie department store.

Expansion plans for 2007 include a location in the Burlington Arcade in London in March and in Lafayette Gourmet Berlin in April, he added.

High-end food is a vital ingredient in the overhauls of La Rinascente and Printemps, both part of the Borletti Group controlled by La Rinascente's chairman, Maurizio Borletti.

Borletti said he planned to create "a food stall on the last floor of La Rinascente Milan flagship à la Harvey Nichols and Harrods. There will be some take-away, too. We want to offer a wide choice so that our customers can have something different every day."

He noted that Printemps was already far ahead, with eight restaurants, including a Laduree tea room, and a recently opened fine-food corner. Still, he said he planned to further develop this sector, since the stores are located in areas around Paris that are filled with offices, shoppers and tourists.

"In the past, food in our department stores was associated [with] convenience, feeding the hungry shoppers, more as in a cafeteria or a fast food," said Borletti. "But just as we offer quality fashion, why don't we offer quality food?"— With contributions from Luisa Zargani in Milan

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