2021 . 03 . 29 | written by Karen Marin

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As many countries just hit the one-year mark of cohabiting with the pandemic - a year that ushered in profound change to how we work, socialize, shop, and relax - it is still not clear what new habits will stick. What changes have we adopted out of necessity, and which will become permanent behaviors? For artisan fragrance and beauty in particular, how will it all affect retail and specifically flagship shops? Here are a few thoughts along with comments from several trusted insiders.

Long before COVID came along many retailers were already teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Too many years of doing things the same way with no animation and no excitement brought department stores down the path of the dinosaur. Mediocre shops without a point of difference and nothing interesting to discover followed suit. François Duquesne, Fragrance Industry Entrepreneur, told Essencional, “The pandemic has been the catalyst either to finish the suffering of some or accelerate the demise of the rest.” The shift to online shopping also put the nail in the coffin of many retailers.

Retail analysts agree that COVID accelerated the digital transformation by as much as three years. We don’t even “go online” anymore - we all tend to be living online all the time, almost to the point that the cell phone has become an extension of our hand. Consequently, many brands and retailers shifted to a digital-first strategy last year, enhancing the online journey and upping the digital touchpoints. Social media drove discovery, while livestreaming events, digital chat, virtual consultations and online events flourished. The website is often the first shopping location consumers visit, so it must successfully entice all ages, all demographics, and all shoppers, while seeming to be a personalized, tailor-made experience. Many analysts suggest that the website has now become the flagship store, but can this be the case for high demonstration segments like fragrance and beauty? François Henin of Jovoy has made strategic strides in this direction. He told me “ We knew far before the health situation that internet is inevitable, but we were looking to find the right timing, resources, know-how and expertise to come up with the right website. Ideally it should be an extension of our store’s experience and not just another e-shop. We are working as we speak on our new global website so each physical Jovoy store can have their own page and implement services such as click and collect. “If you can’t come to Jovoy, Jovoy will come to you”: This is the new motto for Jovoy in 2021. We have already set in place a complete online sampling service with a few in house developments, multi brand sampling experience with thematic boxes and special offers with GWPs. But the best is to come in early fall with our new website with proper CRM and many new functionalities. Our new loyalty program will be at the level of our reputation as a physical store bringing great rewards to perfume lovers buying at Jovoy.”

The good news for physical retail though, is that fragrance and beauty are sensorial categories where scent, texture, and touch influence purchase, none of which are possible to experience in a digital setting. And as much as digital is shaping our lives, people still want a human connection. Etienne de Swardt of Etat Libre d’Orange told me, “ In terms of sales volume, the website is our flagship, and yet I see a new beginning where physical stores will reboot soon. We are human beings and we can’t just digitize ourselves. There is a true desire to be connected, to sniff fragrance on the skin in front of a spray girl or spray boy. We need to interact.” It stands to reason: We are multi-sensory beings and we want multi-sensory experiences. We are social creatures and for centuries, we crave the company of others, the thrill of the chase and the stimuli of discovering new things. Technology changes our habits but not innate behaviors.

Clearly COVID forced the world to go online, even individuals who lacked tech savvy. Certainly, each journey varies from site to site, but positive digital experiences which delivered ease, expertise and convenience in a few clicks have resulted in creating a consumer who is more demanding than ever before. Shoppers appreciate the efficiency and speed of e-commerce but they still expect a real person behind the screen, and more than ever when it comes to customer service. People still want to talk to people, not a chatbot, they want to forge a bond, and know that someone is listening and addressing their concerns. And when they do venture out, consumers expect a safe, hygienic, uncrowded, yet inviting environment when they enter a shop. They want to be appreciated for being present, they want service, they want to be delighted and they want to be entertained. They only want to interact with staff that can intelligently answer their questions, that will pamper them, and will provide efficient assistance meaning the role of the store manager and the staff will change with more focus on service and less on driving sales. In an interview for Essencional, luxury expert, Carlo Pignataro stated “At the retail level, in the next 3-5 years, we will see progressively less staff in store because stores will be equipped with devices and more processes will be automated. But people still crave experiences, so staff will have to be experience creators.”

In 2020 retailers were grappling with the challenge of luring the consumer back into the store. Assuaging safety concerns was tackled first with the rise of touchless systems, pre-booked appointments, curbside delivery, and new technologies for product testing and virtual try-ons. The bigger challenge is to create a compelling reason to go to a store above and beyond shopping or browsing. People are looking for a unique experience, in-store only products and services, special events, opportunities to learn or something else only available in the physical store. Shopping morphs into an activity blending entertainment, discovery and purchase. Trending prestige skincare brand Dr Barbara Sturm has just opened a flagship store in London. In addition to the signature range of services, it will be the first spa boutique to offer exclusive body treatments plus access to a new professional line of medically advanced skincare products ordinarily only offered in-spa after consultation. SoulTree in India is a solar-powered beauty and wellness boutique, constructed from bio-degradable materials with non-plastic fixtures. Shiseido has opened a flagship store in Ginza complete with one-on-one beauty consultations, recycling station (a “feel-good reason” to go to this store) and meditation pods. Although the scale is beyond niche, the ideas show how the flagship retail business model is being reinvented.
For anyone with multiple locations, it’s important that the shops have common branding but also have a uniqueness that reflects the personality of the place. A shop in a resort location should not be a cookie-cutter version of one in the city, and a shop in Rome should not look like it’s sister in London, for example. De Swardt mentioned to me, “I see a big comeback for stores. We have new merchandising in our Left Bank boutique which differs from the Marais shop, but we still have great service and a very knowledgeable manager.”
Silvio Levi, founder of Essencional and fragrance entrepreneur observes, “As we are witnessing a new Renaissance of Artistic Perfumery with many great perfumers who, after long and prestigious careers in the service of great fragrance companies, can now devote themselves once again to the most advanced creativity, I believe that after the end of the pandemic the in-shop experience offered in niche perfumeries will be very different. Storytelling, multisensory encounters, consumer engagement and the very way of experiencing the store will change. For this reason, for example, I decided to change the name of one of our shops to “Fragrans in Fabula” because we have to go back to making people appreciate the beautiful stories that beautiful perfumes can tell. In the same way that we are getting used to hybrid cars, from now on our retail world will be and will remain phygital where the physical component must evolve as much as the digital part already has.”

Retailers will bank on consumers feeling nostalgic and wanting to go back into stores, but they must deliver the “wow factor” at flagship level or the consumer won’t return a second time. There will be another wave of closures, with the “survival of the fittest” rising to the top. These will be the ones who seize the opportunity to rethink their stores, bringing new ideas and experiences to their consumer while blending the physical and the digital. E-commerce will evolve and innovate in 2021 to bring together the best of the online and offline in a hybrid shopping experience.

Luxury Consumers Haven’t Gone ‘Post-Aspirational,’ Rather They Aspire For Different Things (forbes.com)