Readers of this column know that retailers have little to fear from online rivals as long as they focus on services and products that brick-and-mortar retailers can do better than anyone else. Play by e-tail rules and you'll lose every time. Strut your physical store advantages and you win. I've argued this time and time and time again. But this month, Prada and Saks reminded retailers that they should have nothing to fear from Amazon.
Of all of the apparel subspecialties, footwear has generated some of the most powerful sites, such as Zappos and Shoes.com. They fought back against brick-and-mortars with unlimited free returns and close-to-infinite inventory. But there is a personal component to shoe shopping that transcends what is possible online. And even free and unlimited returns are still a chore and a hassle.
What Prada has done — nestled within Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in New York — is to create an area for shoppers to meet with shoe specialists who, right then and there, create made-to-order shoes. Not just any shoes. These include exclusive styles not available anywhere else, according to a report in Luxury Daily.
"The 700-square-foot space located in the retailer’s 10022-SHOE department enables the label to create more of a branded shopping experience within the store, with a corner decked out in interior elements seen in its other global boutiques. Prada has been working to bolster its retail placements in key retail environments, making this new destination within Saks a means to reach a high-end clientele in New York," the story said. "Kicking off the opening, the new shop was the sole point of sale for the Prada Made-To-Order Décolleté program in North America. Consumers could make the shoes their own, with 19 styles, 90 colors and material choices and seven heel heights."
U.S. retailers take note: This is how it's done. First of all, instead of merely accommodating shoe shopping, Saks is making itself a destination for the ultimate in shoe buying. Meeting with experts — who presumably have learned how to convincingly say, "Those shoes look gorgeous on you" in a half-dozen languages — the experience is a relaxed customer-indulgent effort.
Does it maximize the number of shoes sold per hour? Does it make the customer feel rushed and that the customer's job is to either make a quick purchase or get out? This may feel European, but it works and it's what retailers must learn to replicate.
But the retail coup de grâce comes with the custom made-to-order efforts. (Those "exclusive styles" is just Prada showing off.) This is why it's so powerful. This goes way beyond customer service. This is something e-commerce can't replicate. Now, yes, there is nothing stopping a shoe site from asking 50 questions to create its own custom offering. That's just the point. This in-store effort does it all, with the shopper being asked to do nothing other than saying how the shoe feels and whether she wants another canapé.
This Prada effort isn't exactly retail perfection. But physical chains in the U.S. could do worse than to study this one.
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