By  on September 16, 2011

PARIS — Brands need to start thinking multichannel.

That was among the key messages delivered by Fondazione Altagamma on Thursday during the presentation of the results of a yearly study by the foundation, titled “Digital Luxury Experience, Altagamma Observatory,” analyzing the online presence and performance of 187 international luxury brands and their customers’ attitudes. The presentation took place simultaneously at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan and Paris. Altagamma is a trade body of 74 Italian luxury brands such as Gucci, Bulgari, Fendi and Valentino.

Covering eight product macro-categories, including fashion, jewelry and watches, yachts and cars, the findings revealed that online and offline channels are complementary bedfellows of an increasingly integrated nature. Online entities such as brand’s Web sites and social media forums are exerting a major influence on offline sales in the luxury market, which remain by far the bulk of brands’ businesses.

According to the study, online sales of luxury goods in 2010 represented just 2.6 percent of the luxury market’s total revenues, which represented 172 billion euros, or $227.26 billion at average exchange for the period. However online sales of luxury goods are expected to climb at a yearly rate of 20 percent over the next few years.

Of 1,500 consumers surveyed online in June, based in the key Western markets and China, 67 percent of European shoppers said they first research product online before making bricks-and-mortar store purchases, followed by 63 percent of Chinese and 50 percent of American consumers. Blogs and social media play an increasingly influential role in the process, especially in emerging markets such as China, according to the study. Conversely, in 2010, 70 percent of online sales of luxury goods in Europe, followed by 59 percent in China and the U.S., were preceded by visits by consumers to bricks-and-mortar stores to check out the product.

Social media platforms generate 150,000 messages related to luxury brands each week, with Burberry the most cited brand for apparel and Gucci for accessories. The number of members signed up to luxury brands’ Facebook sites is expected to more than double next year.

In terms of brand awareness online, for the apparel and accessories categories, respectively, Louis Vuitton and Hermès came tops, with Ermenegildo Zegna and Salvatore Ferragamo scoring the highest points in terms of customer loyalty. Tiffany & Co. and Rolex took the top spots for brand awareness for jewelry and watches, with Swarovski and Chopard landing first place in terms of customer loyalty for the categories.

According to the study, China is expected to outgrow the U.S. in online sales for luxury goods by 2016.

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