At Le Bon Marché on Monday, the store’s management formed a guard of honor at the entrance. It felt like the opening event of one of the blockbuster exhibitions such as the memorable Ai Weiwei show that the Left Bank Parisian department store is known for, except that executives were greeting customers with hydroalcoholic gel and wearing masks. Their presence was to mark the reopening after two months of closure due to lockdown to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Paris’s first week after reopening drew the attention of the fashion industry, watching to see how post-lockdown shopping would look. All eyes are on France this week. Retailers are facing the fundamental challenge of making people feel safe in stores, says Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet, a consultancy firm. While France represents only six percent of the total luxury market, according to Bain & Company (Paris alone stands for four percent), it’s the first Western country to reopen non-essential goods stores after a strict shutdown. France is also where luxury groups are based; Paris is a symbol, where brands express their best selves in large flagship stores, some of which, such as Louis Vuitton’s flagship on the Champs-Élysées, is tourist landmarks.
The reopening is gradual. Malls and department stores greater than 40,000 square meters, like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps flagships on Boulevard Haussmann, aren’t allowed to reopen before 10 July. Galeries Lafayette’s smaller store on the Champs-Élysées, however, is opened, and almost all the brands’ stores like Hermès and Balenciaga are.
Galeries Lafayette cannot reopen its flagship before 10 July, but its smaller store on the Champs-Élysées is now open.
© Laure Guilbault
There’s an inherent tension between safety and pleasure in the shopping experience. It’s hard to enjoy yourself in a store that looks like a decontamination chamber. Forget the cup of coffee and the glass of champagne. Security measures at Galeries Lafayette, for one, including shorter opening hours enabling employees to avoid peak hours on public transit, closing entrances to mitigate the flow (limiting to one person per 8 square meters inside) and social distancing including on the escalator (at least three steps between other people).
“We are pleasantly surprised,” said Nicolas Houzé, chief executive of Galeries Lafayette following the opening of its Champs-Élysées store. “People clearly need to go outside. Whether there will be flattening remains to be seen. We aren’t back to the traffic and sales level pre-lockdown but we aren’t far. The average basket is pretty high.”
Bain & Company partner Claudia D’Arpizio echoes the sentiment: “Feedback is rather positive. We saw a pattern similar to China: lower traffic but higher conversion rate,” she says. Unlike in China, luxury in France is not expected to see a rebound anytime soon, given its heavy reliance on tourist flows (in the range of 70-80 percent for luxury stores in Paris). D’Arpizio estimates that it will take around 18 months before traveling returns to the same level.
Indeed, prospects are grim. Stephens expects a round of store closures in the coming months in the Western countries, at least temporarily until travel bounces back. “There’s a minimum operating threshold for stores that’s even higher in the current environment. Does the revenue justify the stores remaining open, especially the ones in tourist areas that are often very high-rent districts?” He predicts “a big rethink” from retailers on the number of stores as well as their location.
On Tuesday, the Champs-Élysées was devoid of tourists; Parisians were few and far between. “Most employees who work in the neighborhood are still working from home,” says Edouard Lefebvre, director of Comité Champs-Elysées, the association in charge of shaping the future of the avenue. The committee has long been committed to revitalize the strip snubbed by locals and make it a place where they come for a stroll. “Now is the opportunity for Parisians to rediscover the avenue,” Lefebvre says.
On the strip as well as on Avenue Montaigne, the requisite luxury address for houses like Chanel and Balenciaga, the new normal is the mandatory mask and sanitary gel both for customers and sales assistants (masks given to customers who don’t have one), gloves mandatory for sales associates in some shops, fitting rooms disinfected after each client (at Zara they are closed), clothes steamed and put aside (from four hours to 24 hours depending on the stores. Some sales assistants weren’t actually sure).
Marie, a 34-year-old Parisian woman who was browsing the Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées store came mostly to “check out the food court” (open for takeaways only) and “felt safe”. “But most of my friends prefer to stay home,” she explains.
“It’s already an achievement to reopen and make customers feel safe in stores,” says Mario Ortelli, founding partner of luxury consultancy Ortelli & Co. in London. “But the shopping experience is not that pleasant due to the sanitary measures. Stores can make slight improvements to cheer up the customers a bit and upgrade the experience. It will be a long way to readjust progressively to serve the customers and a long way back to normality.”
At Dior, customers can walk-in or make an appointment, by calling or texting the sales associates directly. One sales associate didn’t give her name card for sanitary reasons but texted: “Feel free to contact me.”
At Louis Vuitton, one sales assistant is dedicated to guiding your journey in the store, ensuring you don’t bump into another customer. The sales assistant touches the product; you don’t. The special attention comes in exchange for the freedom of exploring.
“For luxury customers, the experience and product are equally important,” says Stephens. “If the experience is not fun or uncomfortable, it can have a negative impact on brand equity. One way is to rethink it to welcome customers by appointment. People walk away feeling that they had a VIP experience and it’s far more lucrative from a revenue standpoint as you attract the higher value consumer.”
Louis Vuitton has placed social distancing signs on the floor outside its Paris store, to guide queuing customers.
© Laure Guilbault
As the integration of sanitary signage could trivialize and standardize the store space, there’s a search for identity. Outside the Louis Vuitton store, the social distancing signs on the ground are in the shape of the brand’s monogram. At Celine, the sanitizing gel dispenser is black to match the interior and merchandising. At the Galeries Lafayette, the new signage is in line with the store’s visual identity designed by M/M Paris. The devil’s in the detail.
“Brands need to come up with alternatives to the little things that make the luxury experience and further push personalization,” says Benjamin Simmenauer, professor at Institut Français de la Mode.
At Gucci, there was a long line outside as the store only accepts 27 customers at a time (it’s also regulated inside: four customers in the shoe area, three in one of the ready-to-wear salons). The wait was 30 minutes. “Brands could allow customers to download an app enabling them to browse the store virtually while waiting in line,” Ortelli suggests. There’s a whole new area awaiting innovation here, according to Stephens. “Disney is a case study that retailers should look at when it comes to entertaining people while making them wait.”
Restaurants that have become a key component of department stores to augment dwell time remain closed per governmental measures in France. Their closures remind customers of the current reality. As this part is gone, for the time being, other sensory experiences, such as flowers and music, could substitute.
As customers are likely to spend less time in stores, the key is to increase digital capabilities and move customers to a digital relationship. They can possibly make appointments online, click and collect or download a payment app, which also solves the issue of social distancing at the cash register.
“Physical stores are no longer a distribution channel but an experiential media channel designed for customer acquisition,” says Stephens. “It’s a trend that we have been seeing for quite some time, that this crisis is accelerating dramatically. It’s a historic shift.”
The days of the big bashes to celebrate the opening of an exhibition at Le Bon Marché are gone for now. Instead, we can imagine customers making an appointment online for a private tour in the presence of the artist.