Vittorio Radice

MILAN Connecting the biggest European department stores in one group was Vittorio Radice’s “personal ambition,” and the vice chairman of La Rinascente is taking this aspiration one step further with the launch of a new network called Aux Villes du Monde and an innovative online shopping tool.

In order to support remote purchases, AVDM has introduced the On Demand service, which means customers connect with personal shoppers through WhatsApp, request the availability of the products they have selected and buy them through the accepted means of payment.

“People are much more informed, and we are able to supply customers that know what they want,” explained Radice on Tuesday on the top floor of Milan’s La Rinascente flagship, overlooking the Gothic Duomo cathedral. “This service is easier to run and more satisfactory. There is no need for a catalogue of 100, 200, 300 pages. We are just extending what is happening in stores.”

According to Pierluigi Cocchini, chief executive officer of La Rinascente, this “is a new form of purchase,” and he said the company has hired a new team of salespeople to this end. The service has been tested since July and he said that “redemption has been 15 percent out of the total requests, which is very high.”

Cocchini explained the requests had mainly been made for women’s accessories, and handbags in particular. As for its return policy, he said that, so far, two out of 300 products were returned. “We are happy and we obviously hope the return rate will always be low, but our strategy in this sense is no different from the brick-and-mortar experience.” Products are delivered in the same day in Milan, and from two to five days in the rest of Italy and abroad.

AVDM includes the other department stores that La Rinascente’s parent group, Thailand-based Central Retail Corp., controls: Central Chidlom & Central Embassy in Bangkok; the new La Rinascente Rome flagship opening on Oct. 12 in Rome; KaDeWe in Berlin; Oberpollinger in Munich; Alsterhaus in Hamburg, and Illum in Copenhagen. The Goldenes Quartier in Vienna has also agreed to participate.

Radice noted that the AVDM services are potentially inclusive of other retailers without the need to buy them. “Others are interested in joining AVDM through an affiliation,” he observed. Asked about further expanding the group, Radice said if opportunities should arise, the group would not pass on evaluating them, but he did not reveal if there were any potential acquisitions in the pipeline.

La Rinascente’s stores in Italy are able to access the assortment present at the Duomo venue, and the online On Demand service is being extended to the other stores, such as the Bangkok banners next month, for example.

Radice said the French name of Aux Villes du Monde was chosen for two reasons: when La Rinascente was founded by Ferdinando Bocconi in the 19th century, it was originally named Aux Villes d’Italie, and the moniker is also a tribute to the birth of the first department store, Le Bon Marché (now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), created in 1852 in Paris.

The AVDM project also includes a digital lifestyle magazine in eight languages dedicated to the cities that house the stores. It is developed within the headquarters of Condé Nast Italia in Milan by an international staff. It’s a digital city guide accessible from the web sites and on social media channels of the AVDM department stores. There is a semimonthly newsletter tipping readers to the best locations and experiences, and a personal concierge service that can plan individual city tours, for example. There are six slots daily, free of charge, to sign up for the concierge service.

Speaking from Bangkok in a video call, Tos Chirathivat, ceo of Central Group, underscored the theme of “centrality” that helps connect the different communities and expressed his openness to link with other department stores and “create an alliance.”

Yuwadee Chirathivat, ceo of Central Department Store Group, said “the idea is connecting the world, with 360-degree service to customers. Running department stores is not easy and we want to make it easy to shop, that’s why we are introducing the On Demand service.”

Stefano della Valle, chief operating officer of Europe Central Retail Corporation, underscored the “patrimony of knowledge” the stores offer customers, with more than 500 years of experience combined. KaDeWe is 111 years old; Oberpollinger is 112 years old, and Illum is 125 years old, to name a few.

Despite the slowdown of department stores in the U.S., the group’s management stands behind the format. “They will remain an important venue to visit, where you can hang out and buy dreams,” said Radice.

La Rinascente last year reported sales of 520 million euros, with single-digit growth, said Radice, declining to provide a specific figure. Central Retail Corp. took control of the Italian department store chain in May 2011 with plans to expand globally.