More than 130 representatives from some of the world’s biggest luxury brands gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Shanghai this week for the Luxury Society's Keynote 2019. The September 17th conference – its fifth in the city – featured a packed schedule of presentations, panels, and interviews examining omnichannel and customer experiences within China’s diverse and evolving e-commerce landscape. Soaking up the rich insights from the audience were executives from Dior, Burberry, Hermes, Celine, and Coach, among many other leading global brands.
The scene was set by Jacques Roizen, Vice President of Digital Transformation and New Ventures at Chinese e-commerce service provider, Baozun. While over 42% of global e-commerce transactions take place in China, Roizen explained that penetration is still low for luxury brands, many of which have steadfastly stuck to their own channels. With online luxury retail growing by 27% in China last year, however, the potential, he says, is massive. “We’re seeing and feeling the momentum,” Roizen told the room.
Jacques Roizen, Executive Vice President, Digital Transformation and New Ventures at Baozun
High-end brands have long been wary about entering China’s colossal online marketplaces due to concerns about the content and tone of such platforms, a perceived loss of control over pricing, and a lack of ownership of the customers and their data. However, both JD.com and Tmall have set up exclusive and more collaborative segments for luxury brands in recent years, helping to expel some of these fears.
Pablo Mauron, Partner and Managing Director China at DLG (Digital Luxury Group), said it can be hard for luxury brands to relinquish control to third parties that own the traffic and therefore dictate the rules. As brands have learned to be more adaptive with their supply chain in the face of globalization, however, he believes the same rules can be applied to omnichannel selling in China. “Ultimately it will require brands to trust the local experts in the scary world of Chinese e-commerce. Accept you have to lose control to be agile,” he said.
Pablo Mauron, Partner & Managing Director China at DLG (Digital Luxury Group)
Premium alcohol supplier LOUIS XIII made the leap early, singing onto JD’s luxury platform Toplife — which provides a white gloves delivery service and allows brands to customize their online stores — in 2016, the same year they opened their first brick-and-mortar store. They have also since joined Tmall’s Luxury Pavilion, an invite-only platform for the world’s most prestigious brands. Brand Director for LOUIS XIII in Greater China Cheryl Chong told the conference that both platforms have allowed them to strike a balance between availability and exclusivity. While insisting that brands should take their time to find the right partners, she said that “as long as you can organize yourself in a way that’s authentic to who you are,” third party platforms offer great exposure and opportunities.
From left: Casey Hall, Asia Correspondent for The Business of Fashion and Cheryl Chong, Brand Director at LOUIS XIII Greater China
The quest to stay authentic was a common thread throughout the day, with brands urged by several speakers to consider their vision and target consumers before deciding to join China’s newest and most virile social apps. Getting a special mention with an entire panel dedicated to discussing their relevance to luxury were Douyin (TikTok) and RED (Xiaohongshu). Layla Lee, Associate Account Director at DLG, stressed that the two emerging platforms serve very different purposes, with RED effectively replacing search engines as users browse product reviews and comments, and TikTok providing entertainment with short videos on infinity-scroll. Kim Leitzes, CEO of KOL platform PARKLU, said that while luxury brands typically plan their strategies months or years in advance, they should ultimately strive to be agile and follow new trends when the demographics fit. “You go where the audience is,” she said.
From left: John Artman, Editor-in-Chief of TechNode, Kim Leitzes, Founder & CEO of PARKLU, Fashion KOL Ginger and Layla Lee, Associate Account Director at DLG
Another key theme was personalization, touted by both the event host Four Seasons, which was the first five-star hotel in China to introduce a live chat service in 2017, and LVMH, which boasts an integrated offline-to-online CRM system. Khor Wei-Chong, Head of Digital Transformation and Partnerships for LVMH Asia, said half of all their Chinese customers’ sales decisions are made in store, while another 21% are the fruit of one-on-one WeChat messages. Offline sales associates must be empowered through a detailed and accessible CRM system while online content is localized through the use of Chinese platforms and KOLs, he said. “You can’t just copy and paste from Instagram.”
Khor Wei-Chong, Head of Digital Transformation and Partnerships, Asia at LVMH
Many luxury brands in China are, however, failing at the basics, Kai Hong, Chairman and Co-founder of Chinese marketing automation platform JINGdigital told the audience. According to their analysis of the WeChat accounts of 24 luxury brands, only 8% of followers are active. Within this metric, 64% of engagements are menu clicks and 14% are direct messages, but brands are failing to capitalize on dynamic interfaces and chat bots. “The tagline, if I had one, is it’s hard,” he said, adding that increasing a fan base in China is an ongoing pursuit.
PARKLU’s Leitzes perhaps put it best: “Luxury products are buying a feeling. You don’t get that from one Douyin video or one KOL post. It’s built up over time.”