LONDON — It is the best of times for online shopping, with brands increasingly treating customers as red-carpet guests, tastemakers and experts in the fields of fashion, luxury and beauty — and the worst of times for e-tailers with arrogant, humorless marketing strategies or clunky technology.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“If your Web site sucks, you suck,” said Anthony Citrano, vice president of communications at Verizon Digital Media Services in a speech about Millennials’ behavior during the second annual WWD Digital Forum London. The event took place July 10 at the Mayfair Hotel.

Citrano said Millennials — a generation that lives in high-definition and fails to differentiate between the Internet and the “real world” — will perceive a lack of investment in a site or a difficult user experience as a lack of interest in them. “And they’ll shop accordingly.”

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It’s not only Millennials who are increasingly demanding. The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., Clarins and Marks & Spencer are just a few of the companies that are stepping up their direct engagement with younger generations and “ageless” customers — a euphemism for the 50-plus crowd — catering to their needs online and offline.

“It’s not about an advertising campaign that comes twice a year, it’s about a daily conversation, when you engage and mutually exchange information with your consumers,” said Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director for marketing and international at Marks & Spencer.

He said content is “now an intricate part of the decision-making process.…We made sure that content was an everyday inspiration behind the product that our designers are creating.”

Clarins has adopted a similar strategy with its online customers. “We focus on content that tells stories about our consumers’ lifestyles,” said Laurent Malaveille, chief executive officer of Groupe Clarins Switzerland. The brand offers services including online beauty consultations, a rewards scheme and big sampling program, and urges customers to converse online about the quality of the products.

Brands are taking those daily conversations and shoring them up with service — and entertainment — in a bid to build trust and capture market share.

Ben Jones, chief technology officer at the London-based digital agency AKQA, said brands have only five seconds before 33 percent of customers leave, “if you don’t get it right.”

He said marketing today is about returning to levels of service seen in the past, when shopkeepers would know customers’ names and bartenders would remember their regulars’ drinks.

Jones recalled the first time he visited a renowned golf club with many VIP guests, where, within a few minutes, a locker room attendant had already learned his name, shoe size and the location of his clubs. Jones said he felt like the most important player in the room.

“In this world of elitism, he democratized the whole space for me, and made me feel so comfortable that I would like to go back again,” Jones told the London audience.

Thanks to a gang of professional number-crunchers armed with Ph.D.’s, the online marketplace is seeking to sift through thousands of online fashion and luxury options in order to offer its customers the right sort of products. The site works up a “taste profile” for customers based on past and current purchases, and offers them a “personalized product feed,” much like a personal shopper would do in a department store.

Lyst is also looking to stretch its online service to the brick-and-mortar world, by passing on key information about its customers’ preferences and shopping habits to its brick-and-mortar partner stores so they can improve their customer service.

Kate Spade New York, meanwhile, is working on amping up the fun — and lifestyle — element for customers online and in-store.

Mary Beech, Kate Spade New York’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, admitted the brand missed a trick when it opened its first London store, just off Sloane Square, a few years ago.

The unit opened its doors and was stocked with “everything from scented candles to jewelry, to ready-to-wear to handbags, but no story, no place to go to understand how this lifestyle brand came to life,” said Beech.

The company quickly added a site that had no e-commerce element, but rather offered customers information about the brand. Beech said that as the brand enters new markets it planned to lead with digital storytelling.

Spade is also weaving digital threads into its brick-and-mortar stores, such as printing the word “Like?” on a pull-down screen in some changing rooms, allowing selfie-prone shoppers to ask their friends for opinions, and partnering with Perch, which used overhead projectors to beam custom content onto display tables in eight pilot stores.

Here, a taste of what the summit’s speakers had to say about the state of their digital strategies and challenges to date.

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