Ramdane Touhami, chief executive officer of the perfumer L’Officine Universelle Buly, doesn’t believe retail is undergoing a revolution, or that it should be impacted by the rise of all things digital.
He doesn’t share his peers’ fears that Amazon will take over the marketplace, and — to top it off — he believes data will do little to change the way retailers operate.
“I’m the guy who stands against all of that. We don’t ask for customers’ emails in our stores, we don’t analyze anything. People just want to come back,” he said during a lively and amusing presentation that was peppered with expletives.
As for the change the industry has been undergoing and the declining footfall at brick-and-mortar stores, Touhami thinks that the rise of e-commerce isn’t really to blame. “Why do people go online? Because shops have become boring and their product is s–t.”
According to the French entrepreneur, the real retail revolution happened in the 19th century at Paris’ Galerie du Bois, which was inspired by Arab markets. Different categories of products were sold under one roof for the first time and at no fixed price.
The values of retail, primarily the focus on quality and a personable customer experience, haven’t changed much since then, said Touhami, who credits the success of his business — the brand has six stores worldwide and eventually sees no more than 30 — to those ideals.
“A shop is like a theater, but you have to write a play. Most retailers write about the product, but we start with the customer’s experience,” he added, pointing to the importance of investing in unique architecture, the right shop staff and artisanal product.
He’s also sensitive to geography, and endeavors to capture the mood of a particular place with every shop fit. Buly’s Paris outpost has a nostalgic feel, with 18th century references in the form of carved wooden cabinets, marble ceiling panels and patterned floors.
The New York store at Bergdorf Goodman has a more modern, Art Deco feel, while the Tokyo one has been split down the middle: One side is Japanese Zen with clean lines and white surfaces, while the other is more like the Parisian store.
“It doesn’t make sense to create the same atmosphere; you have to adapt and pick up a bit of the city’s DNA. You can’t just destroy the city. New York didn’t exist in the 18th century, so I was definitely not going to copy and paste our 18th century store design there,” said Touhami.
Investing in architecture and the creation of one-off retail concepts also makes business sense because it gets customers through the door. “The Bergdorf store cost 700,000 euros but because it’s spectacular, it became a destination — and it works,” he said.
He employs the same attitude when investing in shop staff. They all undergo training to learn about the perfumes and are taught to write in calligraphy, an essential part of Buly’s branding and packaging. Staffers take weekly tests so the brand can identify any gaps in learning, and are offered weekly educational podcasts. But Buly isn’t a complete anachronism — it does have a web site and an Instagram account, he stressed. “Of course we do. We aren’t [expletive] animals.”
Touhami said the process is part of building a strong foundation for the company.
“Everything has to start from the bottom, and staff has to be treated as the most important part of your company and paid fairly. If the people making and selling the product are happy, the ones producing it are proud and the clients buying it think that the price is worth it, then you have guaranteed success,” he said.
Touhami said his stores’ regular clients are addressed by their first names and the retail spaces are seen as places for conversation and storytelling. “It’s just like going to your favorite restaurant; it’s all about human interaction. That’s also why we no longer have the kind of customer who is in a rush. In our stores, staff might look like regular shop staff, but when they start talking about the perfumes and doing the calligraphy, you start to see them as artists.”
This type of interaction is what brings pleasure into retail, he argued. “There’s no point in just selling products: Product is easy. The value is in meeting people and engaging with them.”