How do you sell a $6,000 bag your customer can’t touch?

Hands off.
Hands off.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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E-commerce pioneer Amazon is already more than 20 years old, and yet many of the world’s big luxury brands are just now being pulled—kicking and screaming—into the digital age.

Only this past July, Prada start selling its ready-to-wear online. In August, Dior tried peddling its pricey handbags direct to consumers on China’s all-encompassing app WeChat, its second effort at e-commerce after doing a shoe-centric online pop-up in collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman last year. And luxury grandee Chanel is finally expected to launch e-commerce by the end of this year.

Shopping these days is an activity people indulge in at work, in front of the TV, on phones while waiting in line. But as accustomed as we are to shopping via a screen for books, toothbrushes, small electronics, and cheap clothes, buying a luxury product is different.

To spend several thousand dollars on a handbag or several hundred on cashmere sweatpants, most customers will want to experience the quality of the product with their fingertips, and try it on to see how it feels. While many online clothing retailers are focused on finding tech solutions that allow customers to ensure that clothes that fit their bodies, there is little to be done about the basic fact that you can’t touch the internet.

This presents a critical challenge to the luxury industry: how to bridge the gap between the real world and the virtual one without losing everything luxury stands for. Luxury is a “high-touch” experience, said Thomas Serrano, the president of marketing agency Havas Luxe, at an Oct. 6 panel hosted by New York’s French-American Chamber of Commerce, whose members include Cartier, Coach, and Tiffany & Co. That experience is precisely what’s lost when you translate a meticulously designed and crafted real-live product into a flat image online, which is a big reason brands have taken so long to go online. ”How do you make your $6,000 handbag look right?” he said.

Luxury sales have remained more rooted in the real world than other industries. Estimates vary slightly, but experts say that more than 90% of luxury sales still take place in stores. One of the reasons these companies may have been able to get away with staying offline so long is that luxury customers tend to be older. Amanda Knauer, a senior brand strategist for Cadillac, said at the panel that it has allowed brands “an opportunity to lag.” But that’s changing as wealth shifts to younger generations.

The challenge, said Marie Audier D’Alessandris, head of global and North American marketing at Coach, at the event, is “to have exactly the same experience in-store and online.”

That’s easier said than done. At least today web speeds allow brands to use 360 views and high-resolution images of their products. That wasn’t always the case.

And while some brands, such as Burberry, have excelled in this arena, even top brands are still learning. A design consultant told Digiday last year that Hermès had a “disappointing online presence because it doesn’t feel luxury.”

The good news for luxury brands is that the internet now lets them connect with customers long before they enter a store. They can collect information and tailor offers and experiences to a specific shopper. That personalization has always been part of luxury, and that’s one thing that isn’t changing.

And luxury customers aren’t all luddites: Online sales are growing quickly, and the vast majority of luxury customers research their purchases online first.

For all these reasons, “omnichannel”—an approach to sales that leverages all the ways customers shop, online and off—has become a buzz word in the industry, though D’Alessandris said it’s really about the customer experience being consistent. “What still matters the most is the experience, and experience is at the center of omnichannel,” she said.

It’s at the center of luxury, too, whether it’s the feel of high-end leather or the way a brand’s site conveys the fantasy it’s selling.