Online shopping is on the rise, sure, but does that mean traditional retail is virtually dead? ELLE asked two writers to debate the issue.
PRO Traditional shopping
Be it resolved that bricks-and-motar stores will always be desirable. It’s all about soul, people!
The scene: Saturday afternoon at Holt Renfrew in Toronto. Women perched on high stools in front of brightly lit makeup counters dab on lipstick shades fresh from the catwalk. Perfume from the Chanel boutique wafts overhead as a sales associate rushes past in a blur of colour from the shimmering cocktail dress he’s taking to a client waiting in a luxuriously appointed dressing room.
Tracy Fellows, vice-president of marketing for Holt Renfrew, likens this spectacle to “retail theatre.” “It’s really about an entire experience,” she says. “It can be the unique window displays, the excitement of a celebritydesigner appearance or the feeling of being in an art gallery as you look at all the beautiful pieces in the store.”
Excitement certainly would sum up the experience of getting to speak oneon- one with a designer about his or her inspirations and the story behind the collections. Last August, 50 select Holts customers were invited to a trunk show with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen when they launched their Elizabeth and James line. Other designer guests have included Victoria Beckham, Sienna Miller and Nicole Richie. As Fellows points out, “The atmosphere can be very charged, or it can serve as an escape from reality.”
Of course, you could always point, click and buy, but that doesn’t seem quite the same.
There’s no denying the importance and influence of the Internet when it comes to shopping, but Fellows says she thinks that many customers prefer to use it for research, not purchasing. “They look at trends and gather information before coming into the store to see what’s available. They need to know that these clothes are going to work for them in person.”
How it works in person is key. Stephanie Malley, an avid shopper who lives in Montreal, says that online shopping isn’t as convenient as it’s made out to be. “I’m never sure if the colour is exactly how it looks on my computer or if that shoe really is a size 9,” she says. “There’s an uncertainty about what I’m getting. In person, I can see it and try it on, and if I need a different size, a salesperson can help me. It’s almost like a partnership rather than a solitary mission.”
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This “partnership” is exactly why Larry Rosen, CEO of Harry Rosen, says that traditional retail will always be relevant and desirable. The high-end menswear store spends a sizable sum each year training its sales associates to be highly experienced, trend-savvy professionals who can advise and guide their customers. Although Harry Rosen has an online store, it won’t sell anything requiring major alterations via the web. “When you’re buying a suit, you must have it altered and custom-fit for you,” says Rosen. “We’d rather not sell a suit than sell one that doesn’t fit right. Ultimately, there’s no value in that for us or the customer. Clothing is tactile. You have to feel the soft cashmere of a sweater, see how it fits you, whether it works with this jacket or those pants. I think for many shoppers it’s too involved a process to do online.”
Frank Luongo has worked at Davids, the luxury shoe boutique in Toronto, for more than 15 years. He says that he has a list “a mile long” of special experiences that he has shared with customers. He has delivered shoes in person to well-known shoppers who are short on time and need something for a last-minute event. “They’ll call me and say ‘I need something for tonight in this colour,’ and they completely trust that I’ll bring over the right shoes because I know their style and shopping habits already,” he explains.
After Luongo helped a long-standing customer find the perfect pair of shoes for her wedding day, she brought her whole family to get fitted. “When it came to this big moment in her life, she wanted me — and only me — to take care of the most important people at her wedding. The trust and the bond that you share with customers are very special.”
Then there’s the social aspect of shopping. Whether it’s that all-important second opinion from the BFF or more formal guidance from a savvy personal shopper, traditional retail brings people together. Malley reflects on a whirlwind shopping trip she took last fall to help a friend find a wedding dress. “It was such a bonding experience,” she says. “We still laugh about some of the horrible dresses she tried on before finding the right one. It was memorable from start to finish.”
Shopping is a courtship, and, like romance, it’s all about the experience — the gorgeous dress in the window, beckoning you with its chiffon siren song, or the killer heels you don’t need but now simply must own. The experience isn’t sensible or practical — it’s exciting, heady and hands-on. If there’s one thing that traditional bricks-and-mortar shops understand, it’s love.
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Top 5 traditional retail experiences
Holt Renfrew Across Canada.
Details A fashionista favourite stocked with designer collections such as 3.1 Phillip Lim, Elizabeth and James and Balenciaga.
Bonus Valet parking, a Shu Uemura lash bar and a hair and beauty salon. In April, Holt Renfrew Bloor Street hosts Oscar de la Renta for an intimate trunk show.
The Room At the Bay in Toronto.
Details This Yabu Pushelbergdesigned haven of impeccable service welcomes shoppers with clothing and accessories from 70 designers, including Balmain and Proenza Schouler.
Bonus A VIP personal shopping suite offers champagne (naturally!), hair and makeup services and a concierge.
69 Vintage Clothing Company In Toronto.
Details One of the city’s top vintage shops, it has a bright and airy outpost on Queen West and a “buy the pound” storefront on Bloor Street.
Bonus The personal touches from owner Kealan Sullivan and her staff, who perform quick on-site alterations.
TNT The New Trend Across Canada.
Details This big and bolshy concept boutique offers fashion-forward lines like Rag & Bone and Alexander Wang.
Bonus The Montreal shop offers a private VIP suite for fittings, an on-site tailor service and a coffee bar. Agent Provocateur In Vancouver. Details Coquettes flock to this luxe lingerie boutique. Bonus A 3-D black lacquer “forest room” with a bed overgrown with ivy and staff in figure-hugging pink uniforms make this a shopping experience unlike any other.
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PRO Online shopping
Be it resolved that point-and-click retail is the future. So long, storefronts!
If the comforts of the hidden platform and super-stretch denim have taught us anything, it’s that the fashion world no longer mandates that style is something to be endured. The same holds true for the hassle of shopping in overcrowded malls and boutiques with store hours as limited as Nicole Kidman’s facial mobility. Online shopping, with its promise of convenience, comfort and, yes, clandestinity, is luring consumers away from the madding crowds. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spent $12.8 billion on online shopping in 2007, a 61-percent increase from 2005.
“The web allows you to see what’s happening all over the world versus just the five stores in your own backyard,” says Christina Gliha, an associate creative director at a Toronto-based ad agency and an avid online shopper. “If you love a brand, you get to see an entire product line versus just what some buyer deems good enough for the Canadian market.” Martha Michelson, the creative director of
Shop Bop, an online purveyor of designer clothing and accessories, says that her customers appreciate the ease of shopping online. “You can see all the items by selecting the product type or brand,” she says, “and it’s simple and straightforward to sift through sale items, to shop by size or to zero in on a price point.”
Shop Bop is on the vanguard of online retail: In March 2000, it launched as an e-commerce complement to its namesake store in Madison, Wis. But turn-of-the-century shoppers didn’t yet feel comfortable making purchases online, and Michelson says that it took a year and a half before the site gained momentum.
If Shop Bop is the trailblazer, Charlie Graham, founder of San Francisco-based
Shop It To Me, is the visionary. An online service that tracks sales across the web and delivers them to subscribers’ inboxes, Shop It To Me has eliminated the need for online browsing, thus saving customers even more time. Upon signing up, subscribers fill out a detailed questionnaire specifying their favourite brands, preferred sizes and how often they want to be notified when sale items are located on the web. “We have more than three million subscribers, many of whom wouldn’t check some store sites if we didn’t point them out, let alone visit them as often as twice a week,” explains Graham. And with close to 200 retailers (including Saks Fifth Avenue and Banana Republic) collaborating with Shop It To Me, it’s likely that shoppers will find items from their favourite brands at better price points than they’ll find at the local mall.
Other online shopping perks? You can point and click any time you want, wearing whatever you want. (Hello, yoga pants!) Graham also points out the Zen benefits of not having to deal with parking hassles and pushy salespeople.
“It’s all about you,” he says. “Other people can’t see what you’re buying when you shop online. Your friends aren’t there, so you don’t run the risk of being judged. And if hygiene is a concern, you know you’re not going to be trying on an item that many people have already tried on.” It’s also easier to hide gifts or extravagant purchases from spouses and kids by opting to have them shipped to your office.
For women who are deterred by the fact that they’re committing to an item without trying it on first, many online retailers are responding by offering free shipping and returns, as well as providing extensive info on fit, fabric and manufacturing — all important details to help find the perfect size.
“Once you know your size in a brand, you can shop online without fear,” says Gliha, who happily buys Tory Burch items online, safe in the knowledge that she’s a size 9 shoe and a size Large dress.
Like most Canadians, Gliha has spent the majority of her fashion-obsessed life reading American magazines and pining for items that weren’t available in Canada. That changed in 2000, when she saw an Alexis Bittar piece in ELLE U.S. and looked to the web for more information on the jewellery designer. “I went online and found a retailer in Texas that had a huge selection of his jewellery,” she says. “I bought a few pieces online, and they arrived a few days later. I was hooked.”
Details A designer retail site selling high-end and hard-to-find labels (from Michael Kors to Rick Owens) at discounted prices.
Bonus Free returns (apart from a $5 restocking fee).
Details The online outpost of the only exclusive designer department store in the United States that doesn’t have a presence in New York City.
Bonus Special offers like free shipping.
Details A Montreal-based designer site selling edgy labels like Preen and Maison Martin Margiela.
Bonus If you find an item on the site for less in a store, it will match the price.
Details The online counterpoint to the celebrated Montreal boutique specializing in avant-garde labels.
Bonus Free shipping within North America.
Details The e-commerce site of the venerable Canadian shoe store that carries a range of labels from Adidas to Manolo Blahnik.
Bonus $5 flat rate for standard shipping.
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