My first-ever online purchase occurred in the late 1990s: I was travelling from the United States to Inner Mongolia and needed a power converter. This rather lackluster transaction seems commonplace now, but it’s quite symbolic of how people initially used the internet to make purchases. A decade later, by the end of 2007, e-commerce sales accounted for just 3.4% of total consumer sales—but e-commerce overall has been experiencing double-digit growth ever since. Its trajectory has largely followed the strategies of Amazon and eBay, the first companies to allow electronic transactions. Amazon may have started as an online bookstore but it quickly grew into an extensive bazaar providing variety, value and convenience to its customers. eBay offered a convenient platform for resellers offloading their wares as well as consumers seeking deals and hard-to-find items. Thus, the pioneers of online shopping have been price-orientated companies geared heavily towards fulfilling mass-market, utilitarian needs.
The role of luxury has been less clear. If anything, the lack of precedent for luxury brands building engaging and profitable online experiences has long discouraged these companies from entering the e-commerce game. In the early days, controlling the quality and veracity of luxury products available online was extremely difficult, making consumers skeptical. Thanks to the plethora of knock-offs that overran the marketplace in the early 2000s, luxury retailers were overly careful to avoid the possibly unfavorable impressions associated with selling merchandise online. So when they thought of e-commerce, they thought of democracy and discount.
But times have changed, and so has the e-commerce landscape—not to mention consumer culture as a whole. In the words of François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of PPR, the French holding company for brands such as Gucci and Yves St. Laurent, even though “the whole industry has been resisting e-commerce for the last 15 years, it’s now realizing it’s inescapable.”
The traditional e-commerce experience lacks one major aspect: the human experience. Whether we realize it or not, it’s a significant differentiating factor in the overall e-commerce experience versus that of shopping in real stores with real people. With online shopping there are no attentive salespeople, who embody the values and aesthetics of the brands, readily available to help. There is no physical space that envelops and transports you as soon as you enter the door. Though some sites attempt to provide real-time customer service by offering “live help chats” and other automated connections, the customer experience with such programs feels clinical at best. Nothing will ever replace the feeling you get from walking into a Prada store, with plush carpeting under every step and next season’s collections arranged meticulously on the gleaming geometric racks. You cannot replicate the feeling of being welcomed into grand, mirrored dressing rooms, with attendants available to explain the stitching method used on a particular cuff, or the historical significance behind a remarkably striking dress silhouette. The strategy for an online shop is vastly different both in concept and in execution from that of a boutique.
Yet these major differences are not accounted for, or sometimes even acknowledged, on most e-commerce sites today.
Many luxury brands have not been able or willing to commit the resources necessary to fully develop their presence online in official brand sites. Recent studies have shown that four out of five luxury brands now have some sort of e-commerce presence, yet the most pervasive (and arguably ineffective) strategy has been to publish an electronic lookbook alongside a limited selection of merchandise actually available for purchase. Websites for luxury brands function mostly as digital catalogs, imparting very little context and even less of the emotion that is traditionally a major part of a luxury brand’s appeal. While luxury brands recognize the internet as an opportunity to connect with customers through exclusive backstage pictures or sneak peaks into their newest collections, rarely is the content more substantial than a momentary snapshot, deemed irrelevant as soon as the next story pops up on the screen. Luxury companies have yet to find a way to truly engage with their customers on a cerebral level amidst the overwhelming landscape of the Internet, and as a result, there has been little success in creating online shopping experiences that successfully evoke the emotion of shopping in stores.
The approach thus far has been misguided. The answer may actually lie in using the Internet as more than just another platform to display merchandise. In order to be successful, we must think of e-commerce as an outlet for strategic brand creativity, with the ultimate goal of engaging customers emotionally.
The company I founded, AHAlife, does this with exceptional products that have uniquely engaging stories. One of the most publicized offerings found on AHAlife this holiday season has been a beautiful private island located just 47 miles from New York City, priced at $19.9 million. Petra Island is home to two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residences, and the serenity of the 11-acre island is nurtured by the famed architect’s approach towards harmonizing humanity with the environment in his work. The intense interest our customers have shown in this offering reflects a change in the collective consciousness of what luxury means as a personal experience. Although it may not sell, both consumers and press were enthralled with the story the infamous property’s story of revival—not just the flashiness associated with purchasing a private island.
On a smaller scale, we have witnessed a clear demand for products that have the potential to truly upgrade our daily lives. Our $220 Lapka Personal Environmental Monitor, for example, has been particularly popular in this regard. As an innovative smartphone attachment that allows the user to “plug” into the invisible world, this monitor measures environmental elements such as electromagnetic fields and nitrate levels in food and water. This bestseller further demonstrates the consumers’ attentiveness to their own lives and experiences and truly highlights their desire to live their life to the fullest. And our $840 reindeer leather apron— made by fourth generation tanners in the far north of Sweden, whose clients include the Swedish Royal Family—has sold out.
At AHAlife, our customers believe that luxury is not necessarily indicated by the label. For our consumers and ourselves, luxury is embodied in the quality of an item, the craftsmanship and the story behind it, and the history and heritage of the brand. In a society where culture is overly commercialized, true patrons of luxury are not lured by prominent logos or celebrity branding. Rather, they are drawn to items that ultimately add value to their daily lives. They consciously seek purchases that produce a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment as soon as they open the package—and it’s these same items that continue to demonstrate their value on a regular basis.
The internet offers alternative tools to paint an infinite canvas for consumers. There are aspects of the luxury industry—such as the content, creative process and customer service—that can be portrayed far more effectively to the customer than the current status quo. While nothing will ever replace the scent of a store, the texture of a fabric or ambiance of a Parisian boutique, there are different approaches we can take to bring the essence and emotion of that experience to e-commerce.