LONDON — Sheikha who?
This story first appeared in the April 19, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Some of the biggest influencers in fashion today have no public profile or major social media following, they don’t preen for smartphone shots or pose for paparazzi. They may have a seat in the front row, but the last thing they’re doing is snapping a selfie or Snapchatting the show’s finale.
No, these front rowers are a nearly invisible band of supershoppers — high-net-worth individuals whose lavish spending shapes retailer’s sales trends each season and makes up a significant portion of their overall sales.
They often order straight off the runway and they are certainly spending a lot more than Chiara Ferragni, Bryanboy or Aimee Song. In return, they’re rewarded handsomely for their efforts — and enthusiasm.
Fashion and jewelry brands have long catered to the whims of their high-spending clients. Most of the French couture houses now take their collections on the road worldwide each season to sell directly to women in China, the Middle East and elsewhere who can’t get to the shows in Paris. Fine jewelry brands hold numerous private client events throughout the year, while many of the most expensive, limited-edition watches are often sold directly to collectors before they even hit the general market.
The latest twist is how retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar, are rolling out services to meet the demands of their top clients.
E-commerce giant Yoox Net-a-porter Group calls them EIPs, or “Extremely Important People.” They make up two percent of the company’s in-season business customer base and generate 40 percent of in-season revenues. They shop 12 times more frequently each year than other Net customers.
“They’re our biggest influencers because they’re the ones showing us the trends, they move the market in many ways. We know that whatever our top spenders love will become a trend for the rest of our customer base,” said Lupe Puerta, Net’s global director of VIP client relations.
Bloggers may exercise power in the number of likes and clicks their posts generate, but private clients actually generate sales by buying the collections at full price — and retailers are increasingly ramping up the services they offer them.
At Net, buyers, personal stylists and the company’s fashion director assemble every season to put together a look book specifically for the EIPs. It ranges from the season’s cult items to up-and-coming designers.
“It’s an incredible tool for our customers because they go through it with their personal shoppers and start building their wardrobes every season. It’s all about education at a one-to-one level,” said Puerta.
In addition, Net and other retailers lay on all sorts of extras, including backstage visits, talks with designers, front row tickets and discreet events.
“A lot of the things we do are very private and we like for them to remain that way. We work really closely with the art world and other luxury industries like travel, because we recognize the power of creating small and impactful moments,” Puerta said.
Moda Operandi often partners with brands on special events hosted at its showrooms. Most recently, Burberry offered a private view of its dramatic, one-of-a-kind capes from its February 2017 show, allowing customers to place custom orders.
In a digital world where social media types share every instant of their lives in real time, the EIP shopper values discretion. That’s one reason why retailers such as Matchesfashion.com and Moda Operandi put much of their focus on private, “by invitation only” showrooms.
Matchesfashion.com offers styling consultations at “No. 23,” its homey townhouse located on a quiet, residential street in Marylebone in London, while Moda has one space on New York’s Madison Avenue and another in an exclusive gated mews in London’s Belgravia, behind the Lanesborough hotel. A third location in the Middle East is in the works.
Neither showroom has any obvious signage. “The focus is not client acquisition, but strengthening existing relationships. Therefore we are really not equipped to greet foot traffic,” said Moda Operandi chief executive officer Deborah Nicodemus. She said the showrooms mirror Moda’s no-inventory trunk show model and are only used to present specially selected pieces during private appointments.
As for leading department stores, such as Selfridges, which don’t have private showroom facilities, they will keep the shop floor open until the early morning hours for certain customers, while Harrods has personal shoppers who can advise on everything, from tailoring to fine wine.
While VIP shoppers have always been around, the range of women seeking exclusive services is becoming more diverse as fashion becomes ever more global.
According to Nicodemus, the client can range from “a high-profile executive seeking convenience and service to a sheikha who knows exactly what she wants.” Although client profiles vary, Nicodemus said these women are united in being “demanding” and having “very specific needs,” such as bespoke products and one-on-one attention.
One of Moda’s main aims from the beginning was to cater to top-tier luxury consumers with its online runway trunk shows, exotic skin accessories and burgeoning fine jewelry business. The latter launched with pieces costing upward of $10,000 — with a no returns policy.
“We wanted to make sure we had a serious client and the business has been quite extraordinary,” said Nicodemus of the jewelry offer. “We were up 80 percent last year, and for this year [so far] we are tracking a 187 percent increase,” year-over-year.
Moda’s clients shop about seven times a year on the site, and the average order value is $1,400, compared with $450 at other online retailers.
Nicodemus describes the firm’s clients as “heavy users” across its different channels, which include online trunk shows, a seasonal online boutique and the private showrooms. “The client participates at all levels,” she said.
While retailers point to key markets including the U.S., Hong Kong, U.K. and Australia as the most in-demand for personal shopping services, VIP clients are scattered across the world and personal stylists will happily travel anywhere to service them.
For Ines Lareo, Matchesfashion.com’s customer experience director, there are no limits to the services her team will offer.
“Private shopping is all about personalization. You need to listen to the client” and understand how they want to communicate. “Some people want phone calls, others prefer WeChat or Whatsapp. But if you are a more old-fashioned individual who still prefers a handwritten letter, we will do that.”
Mobility is another key focus for personal shoppers. Lareo describes her clients as cash rich and time poor and is working toward optimizing deliveries across different markets.
“It’s about how fast a product can get to the customer, because they want to be first,” she said, adding that personal shoppers can travel up to six times a season to visit loyal customers, even if their transactions are mainly done online.
A Matchesfashion.com stylist is willing to go anywhere to ensure a client has all they need — including a remote sea port, to deliver holiday pieces before the client embarks on their yacht.
For Net-a-porter, whose physical spaces are limited to styling suites in its head offices, one-on-one consultations are essential.
“It’s very important to have a team that’s fully mobile,” said Net’s Puerta. “Just last month we had part of the team in L.A., part in Hong Kong and San Francisco, while others were in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Dubai. Seeing a client face-to-face has no commercial value whatsoever, but it’s all about spending time together and taking the relationship to the next level.”
Net further reinforced its at-home services earlier this month with a dedicated same-day delivery service called “Net-a-porter at home” to be introduced in London, New York and Hong Kong. A second service called “You Try, We Wait” allows EIP clients to receive orders at home from their personal shoppers, who then wait until the pieces ordered have been tried on and collect anything that needs to be returned.
Harrods, known to cater to private clients since the Twenties with “shop walkers” assisting clients in the store, has updated its offerings with its “Wardrobe Management” service that sees stylists visit clients at home and go through their closets to identify and fill gaps.
Sabrina Cannon, the retailer’s deputy director of personal shopping, said the company has seen significant increases in demand for personal shopping services since the introduction of “Wardrobe Management.”
While delivery speed may be a priority for some, others big spenders believe luxury is all about the wait for a one-of-a-kind product.
“She is seeking the unique which is often custom or commissioned,” said Nicodemus of Moda, highlighting that couture and bridal are among the retailer’s strongest categories. “They are willing to wait up to five months to get a bespoke product. This desire for access and custom is what’s driving our high-average order values.”
Although the big brands have traditionally performed well with high-net-worth clients, these women are also constantly in search of newness and look to their personal shoppers to introduce them to upcoming names.
“It’s more about what they can discover, they are quite experimental and they trust us to introduce them to labels that are less well-known,” said Matchesfashion.com’s Lareo. “The same person going to a gala in the evening will also go to the gym the next day and need a ski outfit for their upcoming trip. So we take a 360-degree view.”