Scottsdale, AZ—internationally renowned stylist and event planner Colin Cowie delivered a rousing morning seminar address at Centurion Scottsdale 2014.
Sponsored by the Platinum Guild International, Cowie addressed the present and future state of the luxury market. He pointed out similarities between luxury jewelry and luxury party planning: both are in a crowded market with stiff competition, and both are built around fantasy.
But in recent years, luxury lost a lot of its luster, Cowie said. “It used to be a big deal to get Dior or Dolce & Gabbana. Now you can get it at the airport. Louis Vuitton used to be made in France, now its Speedy bags are made in China.”
It wasn’t just about the recession, either, although for the last five years since the recession, there has been somewhat of a taboo about luxury as those who could afford it didn’t want to be seen as conspicuous.
“When you ride the crest of the wave, everything is easy. When you’re in the trough, you learn best business practices and how to be more creative,” he said.
“When the economy fizzles, luxury sizzles. And the luxury in this room is all bespoke, done with special detail.”
Now that the economy is recovering, luxury is poised to take off. Platinum was the fastest-growing jewelry category in the United States last year, he said. CNBC recently reported that coveted shoe designer Christian Louboutin is launching a men’s shoe line, American Express reported the demand for luxury is stronger than ever, and Neiman Marcus’s stock has rocketed.
Contrary to what some may think, the high-end customer is younger, too, said Cowie. “60% of [global] luxury sales are to 24-year-old women. In China, the average Ferrari buyer is a woman under 40.”
“People are much savvier, smarter, and more discerning. It’s much more difficult to engage Millennials than the customer of five years ago,” he said.
Millennials are eco-friendly, focused on philanthropy, sustainability, and giving back. There’s also a gender twist in that men often behave like women and women like men when shopping. This is what’s led Louboutin, as well as Jimmy Choo, to introduce men’s shoes, and why Coach is selling man bags like crazy in China.
Overall, said Cowie, Millennials, are much more demanding and difficult to deal with than an older customer, he added.
The future of luxury. True luxury today is curated, edited, and personalized. “Great style comes from ruthless editing,” said Cowie. And it’s all about customer service, he added. “A restaurant can have the best chef and the best décor, but if the service isn’t good, it will kill the whole experience.”
He related the story of decorating the interiors of the airplanes used by NetJets. It was great fun to decorate the planes, but always to focus on the mission of the company, which is customer service.
“Luxury is about how we make you feel,” he emphasized, using another example from the Four Seasons hotel, which specializes in pre-emptive customer service. The Four Seasons in Sydney looked up his photo online before he arrived so he could be greeted by name. The Four Seasons in Hong Kong took note of what he didn’t eat when he returned his breakfast tray, and on the third day, only those items with whole wheat were sent up to his room.
There are two types of service: reactive and proactive, he said. Reactive is essentially resolving something that’s wrong, and what 95% of businesses do. It can be done well, but even better is proactive service—anticipating the customers’ needs before they’re expressed—which only 5% of luxury companies do. He again pointed to the Four Seasons, where even the woman vacuuming the hall opened the elevator and greeted him by name.
“She’s probably the lowest-paid person there, but she went out of her way to greet me by name.”
How do you motivate your team to perform that way, to always go the extra mile? Here were Cowie’s tips:
How do you deal with every scenario? Don’t take it for granted that someone will come see you, follow up, especially on an anniversary ending with a 5 or 0. And when a customer is in the store, finish the transaction with, “We’re so happy we could provide this service for you. Is there anything we could have done better?”
Finally, in answer to a question from the audience about the eternal sticky situation of a luxury jeweler—asking about the client’s budget—Cowie acknowledged you don’t want to show a 20-carat diamond if the customer is looking for two carats. His graceful strategy: “What did you envision? Can we be a little more specific so I can show you what you really want to see?”