the LUXURY of SELLING ONLINE

Apr 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

Marketing a $30,000 diamond necklace on the Web is different from marketing a $12.95 paperback – or is it?

You might think diamond rings are the last product anyone would buy online. But Mary Lou Kelley, vice president of marketing for luxury goods i.merchant Ashford.com, would tell you that you’re wrong.

“Diamonds are one of the perfect items for selling online,” she says. “Men buy the engagement rings. And just like men don’t like to ask for directions, they don’t like going to the jewelry store to ask about the four Cs” – cut, clarity, color, and carat, the four factors that determine the value of a diamond. Men would rather log on to the Web, Kelley argues, and find the answers – along with the ideal ring – for themselves.

And that, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of marketers selling luxury items online. But while people are apparently willing to dole out big bucks for high-end items sight unseen – Jill Vollmer, vice president of brand marketing for online jeweler Mondera, says one customer spent $96,000 on two diamonds – in some way marketing such products isn’t as simple as, say, selling books or office supplies online.

“The Internet enables a unique experience,” says Adam Rockmore, vice president of strategic consulting for services provider Fry Multimedia. “But whenyou try to take the in-store shopping experience online without compensating for the things you lose, such as the sensory cues, you don’t truly capture the luxury experience.”

And when consumers are shopping for jewelry and upscale merchandise, Rockmore says, the experience itself is key. “Ultimately, if you’re selling high-end goods, some of your whole schtick is selling the ambience and imagery to create the whole experience and emotional connection.”

Creating the experience

The sensory cues of a luxury-goods store – the plush carpeting, the soft lighting, the classical music in lieu of Muzak – are quite different from those of, say, Wal-Mart. Likewise, the sensory cues of a luxury-goods Website should differ from those of other online stores.

For starters, you need to position your site as one of quality, authority, and customer respect. LuxuryFinder.com, which sells everything from apparel to furniture from top designers and brands, kicks off its home page with an animated doorman in livery beckoning you into the online store – a surefire way of letting shoppers know that the site intends to give them the red-carpet treatment.

In terms of establishing authority, “our Website has a virtual store tour of each floor of our San Francisco shop,” says Leigh Tricamo, director of marketing for Gump’s, a cataloger/retailer of jewelry and upscale home furnishings owned by Hanover Direct. “The customer can see that Gump’s is certainly a high-end, reputable place to do business.”

Mondera includes on its home page information on the Mouawad family, founders of the site and jewelers for more than 100 years. (A page devoted to the family’s history notes that “the headquarters of the world’s most respected gemological institute, the GIA, is named after Robert Mouawad.”)

Important as the historical information is in establishing Mondera’s qualifications and authority, the team behind the site knows it must do more to establish its image as a purveyor of luxe goods. “We try to keep the site clean, and we use our signature Mondera royal purple as an art element,” says Vollmer. “And we’re doing a lot to improve the viewing on the site. We’re working on improving the photography and other things to make the product seem more lifelike” – though she declines to give specifics.

Gump’s Tricamo is more forthcoming. “The whole home furnishings marketplace in general is tougher to carry over onto the Web because of color and texture reproduction,” he notes. But Gump’s is working with an outside company to produce a book that would include true-to-life reproductions of various colors and materials. Customers could request the book, then when they return to the site, product descriptions would refer them to specific pages or colors within the book so that they could view the exact shade of the merchandise. The book would also make it easier for shoppers to match online decor items with the furnishings in their home.

Rockmore suggests using “three-dimensional” imaging, such as that offered by apparel marketers Lands’ End and Nordstrom, to enable shoppers to see the merchandise from all angles, and zoom technology to allow them to examine details such as engraving. He praises the “try it on” feature that online jeweler Miadora uses for some of its merchandise: The jewelry is shown on a model so that the consumer can see just where a pendant might fall below the neck or how low earrings might dangle. Ashford.com, which sells accessories and leather goods in addition to jewelry, has a similar feature that lets shoppers view a number of ties against several colors and patterns of shirts.

Unfortunately, these technological niceties have a major drawback: “If you overdo the creative,” Rockmore notes, “you have slow load times.”

But many merchants are compensating for such visual challenges with plenty of editorial. Every major jewelry site, it seems, offers articles about the 4 Cs and the factors involved in selecting other gemstones. There’s lifestyle editorial too, such as “The Guy’s Guide to Jewelry” at Mondera.com, and an entire “All About Jewelry” library at Miadora, with articles such as “Cutting-edge Style: Italy’s Unusually Cut Gemstones” and “Pearl Essence: Nature’s Nacreous Gems.”

Many of the marketers also make a point of romancing the product in their descriptions. While some high-end Websites, such as department store Neiman Marcus and leather goods cataloger/retailer Coach, stick with barebones product descriptions, Gump’s, for one, supplies longer, more fanciful copy, such as this description of Bronze Chinese Figures, which cost $325 each: “In the enchanting chinoiserie tradition, handcrafted bronze sculptures are handpainted black and shocked with bright brass accents. Almost in silhouette, our Chinese man and woman each sit on a `tasseled cushion’….Their serious intent seems contradicted by the whimsy of the golden bells at their sides. Very weighty 3 lbs. each.”

At Ashford.com, the $125 price tag for a Countess Mara tie is justified in that it is “hand-folded seven times in a special process that requires more than twice the silk of ordinary ties. Truly a masterpiece of Italian craftsmanship and style.”

The unlimited editorial space, in fact, is a major advantage the Web has over brick-and-mortar stores and print catalogs, Vollmer says. “You can describe many details about the product and the story behind it. Plus there’s the ability to educate the consumers so that they can make the right decision. It’s actually empowering for them.”

Another way to empower customers is to provide excellent search and browse capabilities. At Mondera, shoppers can browse the jewelry by type, material, and price. Ashford.com lets customers search ties and scarves by product type, brand, base color, pattern, price range, and keyword. Coach helps shoppers narrow down their search with its Gift Advisor, in which the user can search by recipient, relationship to buyer, personality, and price. Similarly, Coach’s Find the Right Handbag recommendation engine lets shoppers search by attitude (“fun and spirited,” for instance, or “established and classic”), how the bag might be used, and the type of bag.

Providing “concierge service”

While top-of-the-line creative may help sell the product, superior service is needed to close the luxury-product sale. Rockmore believes that luxury-goods sites should provide “concierge service. That could be live chat, or instant e-mail, or the feature that Lands’ End offers where a customer service rep can lead me around the site. You have to add humanity back to the Internet, especially with luxury goods,” he adds. “Some people still want a bond with other people.”

Ashford.com, Mondera, and Miadora.com all offer live chat as well as the ability to send queries via e-mail for a response within 24 hours, and an 800-number connecting you to a live rep – or, at Mondera, to a certified appraiser from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). And according to Tricamo, Gump’s hopes to have jewelry and home design experts available for live Web chat later this year.

Then, too, warranties and return policies need to be more liberal than for lower-price merchandise. In addition to giving customers 30 days to return jewelry, Ashford.com offers a free two-year extended warranty on all new watches. Mondera also offers a full refund on jewelry returned within 30 days. And although the company “has an exclusive relationship with GIA, which evaluates everything that comes in and out of the store,” Vollmer says, “we encourage buyers to take the jewelry to their local appraiser if they so desire.” Other service niceties offered by various luxury-goods marketers include free standard shipping and free gift wrap.

Not for luxury goods only

While many of the features for optimizing the upscale online shopping experience may seem commonsensical, surprisingly few sites offer all, or even most, of them. The Website of jeweler Tiffany & Co., for instance, makes only a smattering of its product line available, and it doesn’t provide very large photographs of even those items. Although Neiman Marcus offers a zoom option for better viewing of its wares, the device doesn’t work on all of its product pages. Neither LuxuryFinder.com nor Gump’s offers special delivery of oversize home furnishings. And none of the luxury sites viewed provide the sort of 3-D imaging available at the Websites of midprice marketers Lands’ End, Nordstrom, and Sharper Image.

That Lands’ End, for one, offers more in the way of “concierge service” than Neiman Marcus or Tiffany underscores Rockmore’s argument that while superior customer service and creative should be a given at the upscale e-commerce sites, it shouldn’t be overlooked by other i.merchants.

“Whether you’re selling a high-end couch or a piece of jewelry or a handbag or a tie or a box of chocolates, you need to determine what factors go into the purchase decision-making. Once you’ve determined the core drivers for this decision-making, then deliver on that or compensate for that,” Rockmore says. “When the Internet enables a different or more special experience, then it’s more than just a different selling channel; it’s a whole new way of life. It’s not necessarily specific to luxury brands.”