You can put your message out to people, but there’s nothing quite like actually bringing them into the store to show them what the experience at Henri Bendel is like and how much fun it is,” said Teril Turner, Bendel’s director of marketing.
Nordstrom is shifting gears, changing the venue completely for its shoppers. For their Deluxe Suite parties, the retailer invites fashionistas and socialites for an evening of manicures, pedicures, eyebrow waxing and of course shopping at a luxe hotel.
The first such event took place last December at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. On April 18, Seattle socialites attended one at the newly opened Elliott Grand Hyatt Hotel. These evenings of pampering were conceived in order to kick off the launch of Nordstrom’s new ‘via C’ department, which features rising star designers like Catherine Malandrino, Katayone Adeli and Cacharel.
“We just really wanted to figure out a way to entertain the customer, something not in the normal context, and so we took it out of the store to be able to provide a little bit more of an intimate setting — give it a little bit more ambience,” said Jennifer Wheeler, director of designer sportswear collections for Nordstrom.
But it’s not just department stores that are becoming party organizers. Not to be outdone, smaller retailers also are opening their doors for intimate and not-so-intimate gatherings. At the TriBeCa Issey Miyake store, it’s about cultural highbrow. In January, the designer actually maneuvered a grand piano into the store and had Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes perform pieces by Grieg. Next? A party for an Italian furniture designer which will feature a troupe of modern dancers. In June, an art gallery-type event will be held to showcase the works of Sebastian Blanck, a young New York based artist.
“These type of events attract a different group of customer, and that allows us to reach a different niche. From a marketing standpoint, given all the competition, retailers have to be more inventive to draw attention to themselves,” said a spokeswoman for Issey Miyake.
The owners of Kirna Zabete in SoHo had a boy’s night holiday shopping party last December. Husbands and boyfriends of about 75 of the store’s most loyal shoppers gathered for a night of Heinekens and Rolling Stones tunes while they scooped up gifts for the resident fashionista in their lives. Jussara Lee, who owns a small boutique in the meatpacking district, invariably asks artists to turn out to paint designs on her clothing. At one of her last events on April 16, graffiti artists painted dresses and coats that Lee retailed for $1,500 and $2,000, respectively. Marisa Tomei and Annabella Sciorra even blew in for a look.
Down the block, designer and boutique owner Shelly Steffee periodically has gatherings at her nascent store featuring artists, designers and other like-minded creative types, in the hope of one day turning her spare atelier into a modern day vicious circle. The idea is to sort of ‘elevate’ the retail space — giving it the added cachet of being a meeting point of the literati and cognoscenti as well as a place to buy clothes.
Even retail-based charity events, which have long been part of the party circuit, are morphing into whimsical affairs. Dunhill honored the New Yorkers for Children charity last week at its Fifth Avenue store with a gentlemanly evening of blackjack tables, freshly rolled cigars and a golf pro dispensing tips on participants’ swings. Celebrities like Stephen Dorff, Alan Cumming and Fisher Stevens attended.
Then there is Marshall Field’s upcoming Glamorama Party, slated for August in both Minneapolis and Chicago, which will benefit children’s cancer research and the arts. The Las Vegas-themed events will feature Wayne Newton, showgirls, a magician and extreme aerial artists.
While these raucous events are fun and all, the question remains: are retailers actually reaping the benefits of their creativity and their cash? Most decline to quantify the benefit, but insist the events indeed help sales.
“When it’s an event where we’re celebrating something like House of Field, and we’re not selling at the party, obviously there’s no immediate impact. But I think that those events do a very good job at getting the word out about what we have in the store or that Bendel’s stands for certain things,” said Turner.
Clearly Bendel’s sees it working. “While we’re not boosting the total marketing budget, we’re definitely turning more and more to events as the parts of that budget that really give us the opportunity to maximize the dollars spent,” said Turner. The retailer also partners with groups like fashion magazines or charities for their parties which focus on shopping and philanthropy.
At Nordstrom, the events have served to pique their shoppers’ interest. “They get the chance to shop privately at the party. And we’ve seen that some customers return over the weekend following the events,” said a spokeswoman for the store.
Given the celebutante sex appeal of some of the soirees, they are likely to draw good-time gals and freeloaders with no interest in shopping. However, retailers usually manage to avoid those types by keeping their events invitation only. And while catering, liquor and invitations can inflate the party budget, oftentimes elements may be donated by sponsors, or retailers co-host events with groups that pick up some of the tab.
But straggling retailers listen up: Butlered trays of sidecars and sushi will not bring you up to the echelon of fabulous party-throwing status. Themes, gimmicks and freebies are the answer.
“It takes more than saying, ‘OK, 10 percent off’ to get people to get into a cab after work and come to the store,” said Turner. “You really have to put something together to entertain them and get them involved and captivated.”

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