Emmanuel Perrin, CEO of Cartier North America, was the first to say it: "Client care is the final frontier. ... You can't go wrong investing in client experience. ... What is good for the client is good for the retailer and is good for us."
A client-centric view of retailing and brand marketing was the subtext of last week's Luxury Summit, organized by the former American Express Publishing titles (Travel + Leisure, Departures, Food & Wine) that now live at Time Inc. Speakers at the Ritz-Carlton Naples gave advice on "seducing the customer," "the psychology of buying and selling" and "the new retail arena."
But today's luxury buyer might not be so easily seduced, at least not by brands. Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the research firm YouGov, presented the findings of the Survey of Affluence and Wealth, conducted in partnership with Time Inc. And those findings were mixed at best for the audience of luxury CEOs and marketing executives from the fashion, automotive, jewelry, beverage, retailing and travel industries.
On one hand, the rich are getting richer, and they are going to be spending more than ever.
"We are in the middle of the greatest asset boom in the history of man," Taylor said. Total personal assets are at $241 trillion, up 60% from pre-recession 2007, he said. "That is a lot of money."
The money to consume is available, Taylor added, but people still manage money as if in the recession. It's not that they won't spend, but they have decoupled from the wider economy and its commercial messaging.
Concurrently, he noted, they're confident in their own ability to manage financial decisions and purchases. "They're the strong actor in the economy," Taylor said.
The survey predicts a 6.7% increase in luxury spending, vs. a 2% to 2.5% rise in gross domestic product, which should be great news for the summit's attendees.
But what influences how luxe consumers spend has changed significantly. The affluent survivors of the recession have built up such a strong sense of their own abilities to navigate financial waters that they have become self-reliant, feel "invulnerable" and are, as David Bowie put it so succinctly, immune to your consultation.
Ch-ch-ch-changes: In prerecession 2007-08, brand love was pretty strong, with 47% expressing positive sentiment toward branded retailers, 80% toward fashion brands, 67% about luxury hotel brands and 58% to certain jewelers. But those numbers in 2013? Respectively: 28%, 61%, 37% and 40%.
When asked if they are loyal to a single hotel brand, only 12% of affluent consumers said yes.
How many respondents felt that luxury brands "always" lived up to their promises? Just 3%.
The brand that matters most, Taylor said, is "Me."
Although brand loyalty has eroded, that doesn't mean brands won't do well in 2014. "Travel is going to rock," Taylor said, noting that 70% of wealthy respondents said they were willing to pay more for "true luxury lodging" and 73% said they enjoyed being treated like a VIP.
At issue is how and when luxury brands will have a chance to influence choice. About 80% of wealthy Americans say they already know what they want and what they're willing to pay before interacting with a salesperson. And 70% of millennials shop with a smartphone in hand to do online comparisons and product reviews.
There is a great need to understand the strategic shopper who is a master of research.
"They're very confident and only look for deals," Taylor said. "We put them down, but they're very resourceful, very sophisticated."
In an environment like this, Taylor recommends that salespeople become docents of their products, knowing the fine details about what they're selling -- the history of the company, the expert work that goes into making something -- and sharpen their storytelling skills. Buyers come in armed with a lot of knowledge, but a salesperson nonetheless can impress them with information that builds trust and recognition of the salesperson's expertise.
And there are still 28% of affluent consumers whom Taylor classifies as "Taste Masters." They are highly involved with brands, love to do their shopping in stores rather than online and look for brands that speak to who they are and to what moves them aesthetically. The way to their hearts, he said, is merchandising.
Fortunately for many luxury brands, of the 12 countries that Taylor surveyed, the one still most intensely engaged with brands is China, an economy that is not only rising but will likely rise for many years to come.
As for the rest of the world, the real question is whether this a cyclical swing against branding or a deep change in behavior. I believe it's not cyclical. Even greater than the impact of the recession is the impact of mobile technology. The way forward is understanding the mobile platform and how consumers employ it for research. That intelligence is the means for strengthening brands and is, above all, the key for brands to develop a new definition of consumer-centric.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.