Luxury retailers are scrambling — in as dignified a manner as possible — to hold the attention of well-heeled shoppers who aren’t as immune to recessions as once thought.

This story first appeared in the September 30, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the changes they’re making are, in some ways, course corrections marking a return to the roots of luxe with an emphasis on both quality and scarcity. Price, however, has entered the discussion after years of being a secondary concern.

“If the dress is $5,000, it should look like $5,000,” said Joseph M. Boitano, group senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The price-value relationship, a staple topic for mass-oriented stores, was one of the points tackled in a panel discussion with Boitano, Intermix co-founder and chief executive officer Khajak Keledjian and Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman at the WWD Luxury Forum in New York on Sept. 17. The discussion was led by Robert Burke, president and chief executive officer of Robert Burke Associates.

Boitano said the customer is looking for options, such as shoes or handbags at lower prices, but that quality remains paramount.

“If the garment doesn’t look great and it doesn’t look like value, I don’t care what the price is,” he said. “It can be as cheap as cheap and it’s still not going to work.”

Retailers are spending more time trying to better understand — and then meet — the needs of their consumers.

Intermix’s Keledjian said, “You really have to understand the lifestyle, and the psychographic is becoming even more important than the demographic.”

The chain has 26 stores in the U.S., and the ceo said they all require a different approach. Keledjian looks at everything from the hotels his customers stay at to where they wine and dine and what they do for fun to understand their needs.

“If you have great product, consumers are buying,” he said. “But in today’s market, it’s not OK to be good. You have to be great.”

To entice its shoppers, Intermix has offerings from 250 to 300 vendors in its stores, which cover an average of 2,500 square feet.

For Goldman, who rose to national prominence as a style gatekeeper of sorts for First Lady Michelle Obama, the formula for selling high-end fashions hasn’t changed at her store Ikram, where new looks are combined with personal service and an obvious passion for style.

“We’ve always bought collections that are new and exciting and that aren’t very well-known, in hopes that we can introduce them to the market and introduce them to the clients — and by doing so, it’s made our store stand out a little bit more,” she said.

And although being small can have its disadvantages, Goldman said the size of the operation makes it easy to motivate and communicate with the sales staff.

“Because we’re a mom-and-pop store, we’re always talking,” she said, pointing to outings with her staff to dinner or the movies. This close connection helps create an environment that, along with the styles, keeps customers coming back.

“They actually come to us because they know that we’re going to give them a sense of excitement that they’re not going to get at another stores,” she said.

Goldman also keeps a tight rein on what makes it into her store, returning looks from designers if the fabrics are not as luxurious or the quality isn’t what she expects them to be.

Burke asked the retailers fresh from the tents in Bryant Park at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week if runway shows were still necessary. The answer was generally yes — if they’re exciting.

“In order for me to process the season and in order for me to process what the designer has created, I have to see it the way that they present it,” Goldman said, who was an enthusiastic fan of Rodarte’s spring offering. “I loathe a collection that just goes down the runway…but I’m inspired by a collection like Rodarte. If we didn’t have fashion shows like that, it wouldn’t be as exciting — and then we’re just selling clothes.”


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