By  on July 13, 2006

Top retail attributes prized by customers at luxury department stores.

Shoppers want to be coddled. They are seeking knowledgeable service, chic packaging and visually compelling interiors. New York-based Alix Partners reached those conclusions after interviewing 850 consumers for its 2006 Luxury Department Store Research Study. Customers were asked to rank a series of shopping expectations on a scale of 1 to 5 for five stores: Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's. "Basic services, such as the ability to easily return merchandise and talk to a knowledgeable associate, are very important to consumers," said Fred Crawford, a managing director of Alix Partners. "The devil is in the details." At stake: the $1 trillion luxury market in the U.S. last year.

1. ATTRIBUTE: COURTEOUS, RESPECTFUL EMPLOYEES
Score: 4.54 out of 5
Neiman Marcus defines the luxury experience, according to Fred Crawford. One key reason: the retailer's courteous employees. The secret is hiring the right people rather than training people, he said. Neiman Marcus has woven this philosophy into its framework. The chain recently announced it will hire 120 college graduates from Cornell University, Wellesley College, Florida A&M, UCLA and other schools who have a "specific set of behaviors," said Lee Roever, Neiman Marcus' vice president of human resources.

2. ATTRIBUTE: QUICK, HASSLE-FREE MERCHANDISE RETURNS
Score: 4.53
Returns departments aren't usually thought of as producing income, so they're typically understaffed, Crawford said. "When people bring something back, they don't want to wait a long time," he added. "And they don't want to feel that they're doing something illegal." Look up a customer's credit card record rather than peppering him or her with questions, he advised. Credits should be given quickly.

3. ATTRIBUTE: STAFF EXPERTLY ADDRESSES CUSTOMER NEEDS
Score: 4.48
Treating customers with quiet dignity is critical to success in the luxury niche. For example, Neiman Marcus sales associates are noted for calling shoppers at home when shipments arrive. Customer hand-holding is part of the store's mission to "offer superior service." Last December, Seattle-based Nordstrom was the number-one ranked retailer for customer satisfaction, according to the NRF Foundation/American Express 2005 Customer Service survey. WWD reported, "The company tries to hire enthusiastic people who love fashion, while encouraging them to always take care of the customer."4. ATTRIBUTE: STAFF TREATS CUSTOMERS LIKE THEY'RE VALUED
Score: 4.44
Hiring enthusiastic staff members is key. "The majority of our top survey responses comes down to [staff members'] attitude," Crawford said. For example, Neiman Marcus rewards its associates for excellent customer service and a positive attitude with its annual "You're What We're Famous For" award. And Nordstrom adheres to a golden rule in its company culture, advising associates to "be kind." Bloomingdale's motto is "outstanding work should be rewarded," so, it developed an employee recognition program. Its Best of the Best associates join in a two-day party packed with cocktail parties and lunches.

5. ATTRIBUTE: STAFF PROFICIENTLY WRAPS PURCHASES
Score: 4.36
Department stores use everything from silvery lining paper to signature store packaging to swath purchases. "Complimentary gift-wrapping is highly valued, as well as protecting an object with bubble wrap," Crawford said. For example, Bloomingdale's gift-wrapping area includes signature store boxes and gold-foil stickers.

6. ATTRIBUTE: SHORT WAIT FOR PURCHASES
Score: 4.29
"Luxury shoppers want their purchases to be fast and easy," Crawford said. "They don't want to wait more than a few minutes." He advised stores to make the process as interactive as possible so purchases can be finished quickly. Crawford pointed out that "more shoppers are feeling time compression." So luxury stores might want to consider their store layouts and make them consistent and flowing.

7. ATTRIBUTE: WELL-GROOMED STAFF
Score: 4.01
Dress and grooming codes for the staff add a touch of class to stores. For example, Nordstrom offers a 40 percent employee discount on its goods three times a year so employees can rework their fashion looks. Not only does Bloomingdale's boast a well-groomed staff, but employees are required to make themselves visible to customers, as well. WWD reported back in August of the 59th Street flagship, "Service has been enhanced; there are greeters by the escalators, larger fitting rooms and sales staff that actually seem visible to shoppers." Bloomingdale's also offers a 20 percent discount to its employees.8. ATTRIBUTE: VISUALLY APPEALING STORE
Score: 4.00
Whether it be lighting, furniture or color, the look of a store is important. "New York stores rate well," Crawford said. "But when we go into the hinterlands, the companies separate themselves by how they look." Is the carpeting worn? Is the store's look dated? Nordstrom is sharpening its image by adding back-wall displays, defined fixtures and less merchandise on display.

9. ATTRIBUTE: EMPLOYEE DRESS COMPLEMENTS STORE
Score: 3.88
Think matching looks, such as seeing sales associates in denim when they're working in the youth-oriented departments, Crawford said. During the "black is back" trend, Bloomingdale's had its New York sales associates wear all black outfits. Other stores spike interest in appropriate dress with in-store discounts.

10. ATTRIBUTE: INFORMATION IS EASILY ATTAINABLE BY PHONE
Score: 3.85
Forget automated phones when courting luxe customers. They don't want a recorded message. "In an effort to save money, stores are automating their phone systems," Crawford said. "It's a bad thing." Efficient human contact is the antidote.

Source: Alix partners llc, a global management and turnaround consultant in new york

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