Skip the Champagne — and focus on bubbly discourse instead.
That’s the latest tactic from brands and stores looking to lure customers with events featuring speakers, workshops, panel discussions and fireside chats. Think of it as retail meets Ted Talks.
Celebrity appearances, designer meet-and-greets and cocktail parties — old standards in the retail playbook — have grown tired and simply don’t have enough substance for Millennials, who crave authenticity and experiences. Content has become today’s currency, with brands showing off their literary sides, sharing expertise and ideas, and giving consumers something to think about.
Many retailers focus on female-friendly issues such as women’s empowerment and mentorship. Other brands host seminars about the finer points of products’ attributes or offer an in-depth look at skilled master craftsmen. With an emphasis on entertainment rather than pedantry, the talks generally avoid becoming a snooze-fest.
Club Monaco took a chance that consumers would respond to poetry. After Yrsa Daley-Ward read some of her brief and revelatory epigrams last month at the brand’s Fifth Avenue flagship, executives let out a sigh of relief. “People forget that they love poetry,” said Francis Pierrel, Club Monaco’s chief executive officer. “We wanted to put a fresh spin on it. Yrsa’s irreverence made her a natural choice. She turned a simple reading into a forum for conversation about the creative process, romantic relationships and the cultural implications of living and working in a foreign country.”
Signed copies of Daley-Ward’s book, “Bone,” were sold at a Strand at Club Monaco pop-up shop, along with limited-edition T-shirts hand-embroidered with excerpts from the book. “Providing unique experiences for our customers has always been part of Club Monaco’s DNA,” according to Pierrel. “We’ve hosted pop-up shops, book signings, tastings with world-renowned chefs and concerts at our flagship.”
“A Generational Thing” on May 10 was Club Monaco’s take on a Mother’s Day theme. “Instead of exploring the traditional mother-daughter dynamic, it was about women connecting across generational lines, the relationships we choose and what we gain from those who are older or younger than us,” Pierrel said, adding that a panel of female entrepreneurs discussing the idea of having it all and the unrealistic expectations it engenders, was equally illuminating. “Verena von Pfetten of Gossamer, Cyndi Ramirez of Chillhouse, and Sophia Roe and Jasmine Garnsworthy of The Buff forged their own paths. We knew they’d be honest about the challenges [they faced]. We focus on subjects that don’t have a right or wrong answer. Our audience is smart and we enjoy seeing where they take the conversation.”
A standing-room-only crowd of Versace-clad consumers showed up at Saks Fifth Avenue’s Manhattan flagship in March to hear Instagram’s Eva Chen in conversation with Donatella Versace about her Tribute collection dedicated to her late brother, Gianni.
“Influential women sharing their stories of success and empowering each other inspired Saks to create panel discussions, talks and seminars on a broad range of topics,” said chief merchandising officer Tracy Margolies. “We want to make Saks a destination for one-of-a-kind events on a wide range of subjects that mirror our clients’ lifestyles. We’re working with artists, fashion founders, philanthropists and more. With the highly anticipated opening of our new beauty concept on May 22, we’ll host a series of wellness talks in our dedicated event space with noted doctors and fitness experts.”
Digital retailers are giving their talks a high-tech spin: Matchesfashion’s upcoming live-streamed interviews and podcast series are meant to “offer an interesting and immersive way for our international customers to engage with their favorite designers,” said Matchesfashion ceo Ulric Jerome. “Hearing directly from a designer means customers can engage on a personal level and discover their inspiration and influences. The interviews are also shoppable.”
The launch of the retailer’s new town house store format at 5 Carlos Place in London’s Mayfair district will give Matchesfashion a permanent physical space “where new, immersive experiences and original content will be created,” Jerome said. The retailer already operates other brick-and-mortar stores, but the Carlos Place town house will be the largest and most interactive yet.
“We’ve done different kinds of panel discussions at different events. The most successful were for thedrop@barneys,” said Tomm Miller, executive vice president of communications and marketing at Barneys New York, noting that at the two-day event in October more than 30 capsule collections were launched and 80 designers passed through the retailer’s Madison Avenue flagship.
The first of two panels had speakers such as Emily Oberg, Jackie Kim of Barneys’ fashion office and Tracey Mills of Visitor on Earth. Highsnobiety managing director Jeff Carvalho moderated a session on the subject of women in streetwear. The closing panel about the spirit of DIY featured Greg Lauren, Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall, Guillermo Andrade of 424, and Drew Caldwell, buyer of developing designers at Barneys.
“Jackie Kim interviewed Visitor on Earth designer Tracey Mills about working with Kanye West, and earlier in his career, Von Dutch and Ed Hardy,” Miller said. “It ended up being a pretty long discussion. People stayed past the time when the panel was scheduled to end. Customers — fashion students and young, curious smart people — were very engaged. Half the participants were our customers and the other half were new.
“We live-streamed the panels on Facebook, which allowed our customers in other parts of the country to participate,” Miller said. “We’re planning to do that with our second drop.”
ThedropLA@barneys is slated for June 2 and 3 at Barneys’ Beverly Hills flagship. The event will feature conversations with designers, models, stylists, artists, influencers and fashion insiders about the transformation of luxury and Los Angeles’ creative community. “It’s another way for us to share our voice and stories and connect with customers on a deeper level,” Miller said.
Bloomingdale’s is also “creating a series where she can join in a conversation with engaging panelists and discuss things that are relevant. We’re a community and it offers a deeper experience and additional value add to the proposition,” said Frank Berman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “People have clearly responded. If the topic’s right and we have the right audience of empowered women, and we have heavy hitters on the panel, [it’s a slam dunk]. When we had Khloé Kardashian and Emma Grede, that attracted a younger customer.
“Through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, there’s definitely a culture of sharing and dialoging about a lot of different topics,” Berman said, while stressing that “even though you can have a dialogue online, it’s not the same as coming together and interacting with other people.”
A panel discussion in May at Bloomingdale’s Century City unit in L.A. featured Erika Bearman, the former Oscar de la Renta executive who created the handle OscarPRGirl; Peanut app founder Michelle Kennedy; Clare Vivier, and Drybar founder Alli Webb. A June 7 panel about jet-set travel is in development. Future topics are to include Back to School/Anti-Bullying, sponsored by the Child Mind Institute; Diversity and Body Positivity, sponsored by Dove, and Gender and Hollywood, with partner David Yurman.
Instead of just a lecture by brand historian Michael Friedman, Audemars Piguet puts on a full court press for clients. North America ceo Antonio Seward presides over intimate dinners at AP House, a living room space at the Swiss watch manufacturer’s New York headquarters. A recent dinner for a dozen high-wealth customers was prepared by Ghetto Gastro, where Friedman discussed AP House, Audemars’ latest chapter, then segued into the backstory of founder Edward Piguet, who traveled to New York by boat to sell watches. He closed by discussing the brand’s history of innovation and creating new experiences.
Seward sees the gatherings as a recipe for imparting knowledge to consumers. “It’s important to tell our story in a very intimate one-to-one or one-to-a-few environment where we can convey our story in a spontaneous and authentic way,” he said. “We’re not selling necessary items. There’s a lot of content, including our origins, geography and how our company evolved. The past is key to our present. We’re the last watch company that’s still in the hands of a founding family. We don’t want to do it in a very academic or vertical or unidirectional way. It’s in the context of good food, good wine and good company.”
The Real Real makes no pretense about the fact that its workshops and seminars are all about selling products. The Sneakerhead’s Guide to Collecting and How to Authenticate the Hermès Birkin demystify the luxury resale for consumers thinking about buying high-ticket items. “As an investment, some Chanel handbags have seen more rapid increases than the S&P 500. But not all Chanel promises equal financial return,” reads the description of the How to Invest in Vintage Chanel workshop. “Join our merchandise manager and seasoned Chanel collector Yang Zhao to become an expert on the ups and downs of the Chanel market. You’ll learn which design details foretell a worthy investment in this potentially lucrative arena.”
“The panel discussions and expert speakers dovetail with our store mission of providing an all-encompassing experience and community for both luxury consumers and consignors,” said The Real Real’s chief merchant Rati Levesque. “Our customers see The Real Real store [in SoHo] as a place to hang out, shop, consign, learn and interact with other like-minded consumers. We’re extending the life cycle of luxury products and want our customers to share in this mission. The events help build trust with new customers since they can interact with our experts and ask questions.”
Chain stores are also getting into the talk business. Express’ concept store on 51st Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan holds events on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings under the Success & Style banner. Gigi Burris, founder of a millinery brand, in April spoke about building a fashion business, while Tan France of TV’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” last month taught men how to upgrade their office style.
“We’ve been increasing the number of opportunities we have to connect with our customers,” said Jim Hilt, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer of Express. “Our topics relate to the work space and how to achieve more. Our shoppers are super-ambitious and driven. We can connect them with influencers and game changers.”
According to Hilt, consumers want to learn about health, wellness and beauty, which Express will mine. “We’re substantially invested in events,” Hilt said. “We feel they’re a big differentiator.”
Most brands assiduously avoid any subject that could smack of controversy, concentrating on topics such as the work-life balance and entrepreneurship. Wildfang is gamely and vocally taking issue with Washington, D.C., while opening its stores for women to speak their minds.
Portland-based Wildfang has a feminist bent that gives its Free Speech events their bite. “We invite to Free Speech six women from the community,” founder Emma McIlroy said of the events, which are held on the last Wednesday of the month. “They have to tell a personal story.”
Wildfang doesn’t censor subject matter or content, so things can get racy. The goal of Free Speech is “to give women who normally wouldn’t have a platform, a forum. We make sure that 50 percent of participants identify as queer and 50 percent as women of color,” McIlroy said. “Women stand up and talk about what it feels like to be a black woman in Portland or what it feels like to be raped multiple times. We get the humor, power and pathos. The youngest woman to share a story was 13, and the oldest was 95.”
Prior to launching fireside chats at her SoHo store almost a year ago, Rebecca Minkoff had been attending networking events and dinners. “I really wanted to open up this [source] of knowledge and advice and learning new ways of doing things to my consumer base,” she said. “It started with me interviewing female executives. My goal is that you come away having learned something, gotten advice or inspiration. The goal isn’t necessarily sales. It’s great if they buy something, but it’s about building this community. Events breed loyalty in customers, but if they’re not ready to purchase, they’re not going to buy anything.”
Events about money or financial advice attract the largest crowds, with the SoHo store accommodating up to 90 women. “We had Farnoosh Torabi, author of ‘When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women,'” Minkoff said. “She’s written several articles about being smart about your money. When Daphne Oz, launched her cookbook [‘The Happy Cook,’] the room was packed.”
Minkoff’s calendar of events includes programs at her stores in Chicago and L.A., but she steers clear of politics. “My goal is to unite women,” she said. “Depending on who’s speaking at the fireside chat, we get everything from personal questions to questions about starting or growing a business. The speakers open themselves up to be vulnerable.
“Going forward, we have plans to blow this up to be more meaningful and potentially larger,” she said. “My goal is to host large events that go beyond a fireside chat. We’re looking for other ways to keep supporting women. We’re looking at how we collaborate. Maybe we’ll do a limited edition collection with an up-and-coming designer or artist. Going forward, our events will be multidimensional.”