Over the last six months, we’ve been approached by a number of luxury brands to help them with their in-store sales skills.
Companies like Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Christian Louboutin, Fendi, Versace, Hermès, Ralph Lauren, and Tiffany & Co. have all felt their sales soften as the market has readjusted to the growing influence of millennials and the increasing impact of the internet. But now sales are heading up again and they want to be ready to catch the next wave.
The in-store sales approaches of luxury brands are often similar. The aim is to create a meaningful experience and develop a visceral connection between the client and the brand. The sales process in many cases is a variation of Connect, Dream, Try, Buy:
- Connect with the client and build rapport
- Help the client Dream of luxury
- Try it on, try it out
- Buy, close the sale.
The client advisor’s role in creating the in-store experience is vital. Yet many fail to Connect and conjure the Dream, and simply jump to Try and Buy.
To prepare for our projects, I’ve been visiting luxury boutiques as a mystery shopper. In each case, my experience has been something like this:
‘Can I help you?’
‘I’m interested in buying a present for my sister’s 50th.’
‘Would you like to look at bags or clothes?’
‘Umm … bags.’
‘Big bags or small bags?’
‘This is a lovely bag. It fastens at the top like this. It’s quite light. And as you can see, when I put it over my shoulder it looks great.’
‘How much is it?’
‘Four-and-a-half thousand dollars.’
Connecting with stories
They say the shortest distance between two people is a story. So the salesperson should first help me tell them a story of what has brought me to their store. Our connection is then strengthened if they can share a story in return.
Here’s a story-powered version of the scenario I described above:
‘I’m interested in buying a present for my sister’s 50th.’
‘Where’s the party happening?’
‘In Dubbo, at their house. My sister moved out there 20 years ago.’
‘I went to the zoo there ages ago. Lovely place. What does your sister do in Dubbo?’
‘She’s the principal of the high school.’
We are now connecting. We have some small things in common, and the salesperson has shown a level of interest in me and my sister.
While these are not full-blown stories, they are snippets of experiences that allude to bigger stories.
Fostering the dream
Once a rapport has been established, the salesperson should help me aspire to my small piece of luxury: the Dream. Exclusivity is part of this, but as millennials come to make up the majority of buyers, it will be character and meaning that will become most influential in sales. And these two features are best conveyed through stories.
The client’s experience with the brand will influence the stories the salesperson tells next. The choices include:
- Foundation stories for customers new to the brand
- Product stories
- Company character stories.
One of my first mystery shopper experiences of a luxury brand was at Burberry. I was about to teach storytelling to the Burberry folk in London, and before leaving Australia for the UK, I thought it would be good to see what their in-store storytelling was like.
So I walked into their Sydney flagship store on George Street, and a salesperson came up to me and asked whether he could help me. When I told him this was my first visit to a Burberry store, he turned and quickly walked to the back of the store, beckoning me to follow.
We stopped in front of a rack of trench coats. ‘In 1878, Thomas Burberry invented gabardine’, said the salesperson, lifting a coat and showing me the material, ‘and designed the trench coat for British Army Officers. The business exploded’. Opening the coat, he showed me the lining. ‘From that point forward, the lining in our trench coats became what is now known as the Burberry pattern.’
This is a foundation story. All the luxury brands have them. In many cases, they have multiple foundation stories. On hearing the Burberry story, I felt the history of the brand, the dedication to detail, the hard work of the founder. I was impressed that Burberry invented gabardine.
Many clients will know a brand’s foundation story, but salespeople should always double-check this.
A bag is not merely a bag to a luxury brand. There is invariably a story behind it.
Going back to my boutique scenario, rather than showing me how the bag’s fastener works, at least at the outset, the salesperson could spend a moment sharing the story of the product, as well as stories about who is using it, building the dream.
The conversation might go something like this:
‘This looks like something my sister would love.’
‘This is the famous Hermès Birkin Bag. Back in 1984, our CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas, was sitting on a plane next to the actress and model Jane Birkin. As Jane was stowing her handbag, she complained about how difficult it was to find a roomy carry-on she could put her and her young daughter’s things in. Monsieur Dumas cleverly had one designed for her and a legend was born.’
The value of a story being attached to a product was nicely illustrated by the journalists Rob Walker and Josh Glenn when they conducted an intriguing experiment in 2009. They arranged for some people to buy trinkets for no more than a few dollars each. Then they asked writers to compose stories about the trinkets and posted the items along with the stories on eBay. They sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3612.51, an amount 28 times the original value. You can read more about the experiment here.
Now, the inspiration for how a product was designed is important, but it’s not as important as who else owns it. Imagine if a salesperson told this story:
‘Rihanna was here last week. What an amazing woman. She really loved the Peekaboo collection. She ended up buying this one here.’ (Whips out her smartphone and shows a photo of Rihanna at the Melbourne Cup with her new purchase.)
I experienced this connection between a luxury brand, fame and social media just a couple of months ago. I was in a Christian Louboutin boutique doing some more mystery shopping, and the client advisor asked whether I had seen the latest photos of the Met Gala in New York.
When I said no, he shot behind the cash register and waved to me to join him. In a flash, he had the photos up on his computer. He proudly showed me an image of Christian with long-time Vogue editor Anna Wintour on the red carpet. ‘See Anna’s shoes? Christian designed them just for her.’ In a few moments, the client advisor had connected me and his product with one of the great arbiters of haute couture.
Company character stories
Millennials are demanding more from brands. In particular, they want to know about the character of a company. This is best conveyed in small anecdotes.
Take sustainability. It’s one thing to say you are following sustainable practices, but it’s another thing to give real-life examples of how you have embraced sustainability:
‘Do you know the sources of your diamonds?’
‘In the past, the only way to get diamonds was to dig them out of the ground. But as you know, it is notoriously difficult to track the heritage of mined diamonds. They could have exchanged hands to fund war, or been smuggled out of a country as contraband.
When we started Lark & Berry, we wanted to know the full heritage of our diamonds. Our founder, Laura Chavez, found a lab process where we could make cultured diamonds, where we could grow our own. She knew right away that this would up-end the jewellery industry. We now make affordable, high-quality diamond pieces that are beautiful and sustainable. You can read more about Lark & Berry here.
Any story that gives an insight into how a company or its key people have acted also gives an insight into the company’s character. Salespeople need to stay up-to-date with the character stories that are meaningful to their clientele.
In any sales process, storytelling skills are vital. But for luxury brands, where a major goal is to conjure a dream for the client and create meaningful experiences, oral storytelling is an essential technique. Without stories, client advisors are relegated to detailing the functions and features of a product, making any sales merely transactional.
That’s why luxury brands are beginning to equip their front-line sellers with oral story skills. Those who don’t have them will be left behind.
The story-powered shopping experience will always be the more memorable, more enjoyable, more meaningful experience. Stories connect people with brands.
I’ve already discovered some great stories working with luxury brands. I am keen to hear more.
Storytelling for Sales is a comprehensive six-month program that will help sellers become star performers. Learn more about it here
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: