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With capacity restrictions, queues are common outside high-end stores such as Dior.

Franck Muller at MBS sees a gradual pickup.

IWC has a virtual boutique that’s been visited over 10,000 times.

Piaget staff observe safety measures.

Luxury is dead. Long live luxury

The pandemic has turned high-end stores into high-security mini-airports. But luxury is stylishly fighting back
Jun 26, 2020 5:50 AM

FOR DECADES, LUXURY brands had mastered the art of the sale. The precise calibrations of product design, store layout, careful lighting, piped-in music and professional staff kept you lingering, gazing, craving and eventually pulling out your wallet or purse.

But today even high-end malls look like mini-airports. There are layers of checks and security, zigzag queues around ubiquitous stanchions, staff and signages telling you where to go, and frequent safety announcements on the PA system. When you approach an individual store within the mall, this ritual has to be repeated, as if you’re now going through the boarding gate. 

All this is anathema to luxury, which thrives on creating exquisite environments to transport you to consumer heaven. Face masks, hand sanitisers and no-touch thermometers now commonplace in every store are generating fraught, unsettling reminders that your body is fragile and susceptible to illness.

In such an environment, what will rescue the luxury store from extinction? Perhaps the same things they stand for – the emphasis on quality, nurturing of customer relationships, and bolstering of brand clout through exclusivity and conscientiousness. Lately the expansion of omni-channel capabilities into digital realms has become more crucial, as second-wave infections keep older, deep-pocketed shoppers at home.  

In our 9-page special coverage this week, we look at all the ways that luxury is staying on its toes. There’s the ilLido group completely changing the layout of its Art and Aura restaurants at National Gallery to address current dining needs. There’s CYC Made To Measure that now sells well-tailored masks and locally-invented antiviral sprays on top of custom-made clothes. There’s Hugo Boss choosing not to close ranks in difficult times but instead reaching out to help vulnerable communities. 

At the end of the day, luxury will thrive because dining out at a Michelin-starred restaurant will always beat fancily-packaged delivery from said restaurant. A pampering professional facial will always trump your home-based 5-step beauty regime. And no online shopping experience can surpass the simple buoyant pleasures of roaming through a luxury store and discovering a beautiful object on the spot. Right then and there, you can hold it in your hands, feel its exquisite material, marvel at its design, and – one credit card transaction later – bring it straight home.


WATCHES: Recovering in good time

Watch boutiques see slow pick-up, but continue to expand online

By Helmi Yusof & Dylan Tan

Watch boutiques reopened last week with mandatory safety precautions, hampering some of the customary hospitality extended to customers. 

No tea or coffee in ceramic cups, just bottled water. No complimentary chocolates or candy, but you can help yourself to a free mask and a dollop of hand sanitiser. Every staff member was masked, and you had to listen carefully to make out their muffled words without the visual aid of moving lips.

That did not, however, stop queues from forming outside some boutiques. It was not because the boutiques were especially packed, but because social distancing measures drastically reduced the maximum capacity of each store. But if one peered through the glass walls or windows, one saw customers moving comfortably about, as if roaming through a museum. 

At the Franck Muller store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), a handful of customers streamed in during lunchtime. Typically the store sees more, but travel restrictions also mean the mall was bereft of its tourist football. 

O Wee Yong, Senior Vice President of Franck Muller, says the company is looking to strengthen its online presence: “The current situation has redefined how consumers interact with brands. They are now more receptive to an omni-channel commerce experience. And as we move towards greater digitalisation, we will continue to adapt and integrate our operations and retail experience.”

During the circuit breaker, Franck Muller has to “rely on social media a lot more, as well as explore other avenues, such as eDMs, to reach out to clients”, a move that will continue into the future.

Meanwhile at Piaget, the staff had been split and staggered in view of the contact they make with customers daily. Its boutique at MBS had hand sanitisers at every station, and could accommodate only five clients at a time.

Petronille de Parseval, Managing Director of Piaget South-east Asia & Australia, says: “The biggest challenge now is to reinvent retail and be more agile in delivering exceptional experience, while following all safety measures requested. Our sales ambassador will have to adapt and engage with customers sometimes outside the boutique.” 

Piaget just launched a virtual boutique that allows customers to explore a realistic-looking showroom and home in on specific models. “The idea is to create a platform that brings a new shopping experience, with the look and feel of a boutique, and the possibility of having direct contact with our sales ambassadors,” she says. “The virtual boutique has been gaining traction.”

IWC Schaffhausen launched its virtual boutique even earlier in March. According to its spokesperson: “Online traffic for the IWC virtual boutique has exceeded 10,000 visits, a reflection of the current desire for digital connectivity… And indeed, development of digital connections and technology innovation for our retail business will continue to accelerate.”

Reports of a second wave of Covid-19 cases surfacing around the world means watch brands are not taking any chances – the coming months could be a case of digital or die. 

Piaget’s Mrs de Parseval says: “We had hoped to see the Chinese phenomenon of ‘revenge spending’ taking place in Singapore. But I guess we’ll witness it when travelling restrictions are eased. We have a lot of regular customers from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia who love shopping here.”

See other stories on how fashion, menswear, design, dining and other lifestyle sectors are fighting back.