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They’re not exactly Tupperware parties, but big retail players are getting personal with their customers.
Battling the recession, designers and retailers are wooing customers at intimate gatherings that range from informal fashion presentations in private homes or hotels to in-store events after business hours. The goal: to inspire shopping by offering an exclusive experience and interaction with fashion arbiters.
Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, among other stores, are pushing the strategy, which is cost-effective and represents targeted use of marketing budgets.
“Any time we can work one-on-one with customers we can do a much better job of customizing trend presentations — versus pulling a fashion show for a large group where you don’t necessarily know what they are looking for,” said Kimberly Grabel, senior vice president of marketing at Saks.
The luxury retailer is increasing these get-togethers throughout the 53-store chain — including flagships that previously focused on large-scale events like runway shows, she said.
Nordstrom designer buyer Margaret Hinojosa de Garza said she helped arrange an invitation-only cocktail party for about 65 women, who are among top customers, at the retailer’s store at Dallas’ NorthPark Center that featured Jason Wu’s fall collection. The designer appeared at the store a day late after his flight was canceled because of bad weather.
“The customers like to shop during these events,” she said. “They feel we are doing something for them and they do feel very special as a result. I have loved it. You can hear what they say and get their feedback.”
The company is using the tactic in about half of its 176 full-line stores, a spokeswoman said.
Sales at these events are relatively modest — usually less than $50,000 — compared with a blockbuster in-store trunk show by a major designer, which might bring as much as $1 million. However, the value of these gatherings is in building customer relationships, getting feedback, strengthening brand awareness and moving inventory.
Designer Abi Ferrin, who does about 25 percent of her business via home parties in which the hostess foots the bill in exchange for clothing, sees several advantages.
“I’m selling retail and getting full markup, which is helpful, and I’m developing new customers through a really personal approach,” Ferrin said. “It’s a more relaxed environment, so they are more apt to spend. A lot of people don’t want to be perceived as throwing money around. I don’t have that kind of resistance in a home show. They planned to come there to shop. I develop closer relationships and bonds with my customers.”
Neiman Marcus’ recession strategy calls for a greater number and variety of intimate events. It has transformed a stockroom into a private event space at its NorthPark Center store, one of its highest-volume units, and behind the unmarked door, invited guests have lunched with Michael Kors, sipped Champagne while hearing about Chanel’s Les Exclusifs fragrances and enjoyed facials by Natura Bissé.
Neiman’s also has been entertaining shoppers off-site, including late-night cocktails with Mitchell Binder, the designer of hip King Baby Studio jewelry, at Stone Rose Lounge in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Natura Bissé, which has limited distribution to 105 doors nationwide, put a different spin on the strategy by setting up a white bubble tent outside Neiman’s front door at NorthPark Center. Rather than courting elite invited guests, the company treated curious onlookers to short free facials inside the tent.
“It was…effective as far as brand recognition because it reached every person who was walking through the mall,” said Gigi Howard, Natura Bissé’s public relations director. “There were a few people who may never have been in Neiman Marcus who had their mini facial done in that bubble and they would go in and buy a product, like The Cure for $190 or the Glyco Extreme peel for $225, because they saw the results right there on the spot. It was incredible. We will do it again wherever there is a Neiman Marcus.”
Smaller retailers, which have long hosted parties to drive traffic, are getting more focused in their approach. Forty Five Ten, a Dallas designer boutique, opted to stage three lunches for 30 this spring at its T Room restaurant instead of staging a single big event. One highlighted Yigal Azrouël for a charity group of potential customers and another invited clients of Kauffman Franco for a trunk show. At the third, owners Brian Bolke and Shelley Musselman narrated informal modeling of spring styles for their best customers.
“Most women don’t jump up and shop because they don’t want to spend in front of their friends,” Bolke said. “But it can make a huge difference over the next couple of days. At the event where all the people were new to the store, three came back. If 10 percent become customers, it was worth the trouble.”
Andy Cohen, a New York-based marketing consultant, said anything a retailer can do to create an emotional bond is a positive. To be effective, it’s critical to attract a target audience in the appropriate number.
“If you do something for somebody else, there is a subtle obligation,” Cohen said. “The more intimate the group, the greater the obligation; the larger the group the less obligation and lesser sales. I experimented with this theory of obligation and went around offering a choice of donuts to taxi drivers in Manhattan when I got into the car. I found that they would not only take me where I wanted to go, but go out of their way.”
Dallas, for example, has seen a spate of designers flying in for private parties at posh hotels this year, often with cash-and-carry goods plus a trunk show. They include Thuy Diep, Monique Lhuillier, Yeohlee Teng, Loris Doran, David Meister and Maria Cornejo.
Many of these events were arranged by Maxine Trowbridge, founder of the PinkMemo.com lifestyle Web site, who throws a monthly “Fashion Dish” luncheon at Craft restaurant at the W Dallas: Victory Hotel. The series copromotes the restaurant, the designer and an occasional retail partner, she noted.
“If you are targeting the luxury customer, these one-on-one events are really what you need to do,” Trowbridge said. “Especially now a lot of luxury is going underground, and people don’t want to make an obvious statement” about spending.
“Being as close to the client as possible is very important,” said Loris Diran, who presented his collection at Fashion Dish in May. “The customer needs to work with the designer again like in the Fifties and Sixties. This is fun for me.”
Diep appeared at Fashion Dish in February, inviting the 39 women who attended to buy spring samples and production and place orders for fall. Diep has no retail distribution in Dallas for her Thuy collection, which is two years old.
“I do runway, and that’s a big, theatrical experience for the press and buyers, but the clothes go by so fast that I don’t think people can see the detail,” Diep said. “In a venue like this you can see that. These women are fashionable and would be the first to buy a new label or designer, so it’s perfect.”
It’s a smart comarketing tactic, said Steve Dennis, a consultant and former senior vice president of strategy, business development and corporate marketing at Neiman Marcus.
“It behooves up-and-coming designers to employ new strategies to get noticed and build a sales foundation,” Dennis said. “Partnering with folks like the W, who need something new for their marketing, and creating something intimate and special for clients with the interest in fashion and the means to spend, is a very valid idea.”
Saks’ Grabel said the bottom line for consumers is that it’s fun.
“We just did some research on customer experience, and one of the questions we asked is, ‘Given the backdrop of the economy, is shopping just not fun?’” she said. “And they disagreed and said it is still fun and should still be fun. That is the element of these more intimate parties where you are with friends and having fun and you get to shop — it’s a trifecta of having a good time.”