The Dying Luxury Shopping Experience

Last Saturday night my fiance and I decided to get in the holiday spirit and go shopping downtown. We live in Chicago but generally try to stay away from the insane Midwest tourist mania on Michigan Avenue – but once a year we head over to check out the Christmas lights. As we walked down the “Magnificent Mile” we wandered in and out of a number of stores including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. These are both nice stores with luxury brands, but something wasn’t right. The stores were all completely dead – this is a nice Saturday night in downtown Chicago during holiday season and we were literally two of the only five customers in each of the stores. At Neiman Marcus the only customers in the entire store were all huddled in the Goyard stall looking at the signature $1,750 canvas bags from the French brand – the rest of the store was completely empty. At Sak’s I literally counted five people in the whole store. Yes, I know there are insane markups on everything in these stores from La Mer face cream ($500 wtf?) to $4,000 Gucci totes, but seriously how can these stores stay in business when no one is visiting them on a Saturday night? Also, why is no one visiting? I think I know why.

The overall sales experience at both Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus were completely underwhelming and honestly a bit sad. If you seriously want me to buy a $1,500 anything in your stores you need to make it feel like I am getting both a great experience and great service. That shouldn’t be too much to ask. Both of these stores need to change the whole experience and more importantly actually make it an experience. While shopping at both the Chicago Sak’s and Neiman Marcus stores I was struck by how un-engaging the sales people actually were – they all appear like a bunch of medicated suburban middle aged men and women with bad hair dye jobs. One of the men helping us at the cologne counter had such bad dandruff you could literally see it on the counter. Another thing I noticed – there wasn’t any music playing in either of the stores – it was almost dead silent.

In this mornings Sunday New York Times there was a timely article “Face-Lift for a Fifth Avenue Legend” about how Saks Fifth Avenue’s plan to revamp their flagship fifth avenue store, but unfortunately for these retailers the expensive overhead of keeping the lights on for their stores is likely unsustainable no matter how much they try to evolve or improve the retail shopping experience. In my opinion there is likely very little that can be done to save the dying luxury shopping experience. If I as a 30 year old Millennial with disposable income is the consumer that these luxury stores are trying to attract they need to do a lot more than making their stores look prettier and easier to walk through.

My Saks and Nieman Marcus experiences were a stark contrast to the experience I had a few blocks over while shopping in the new Chicago Uniqlo store – the Japanese brand known for great clothes at low prices. I was only buying a $100 blazer and the experience felt more luxurious and the service was a lot better than at both Sak’s and Neiman Marcus. There was dope electronic ambient music, cool lighting, and an overall vibe that made me want to hang around for awhile. It just felt cooler. Luxury stores could learn a lot from Uniqlo. They need a better vibe.

Also the whole time I kept thinking how I could get a better deal online. Like anyone I found myself checking my phone for cheaper prices of Tom Ford’s Oud Wood – literally the best smelling cologne ever. At $300 a bottle I knew there had to be a better deal somewhere and sure enough, with two clicks I ordered it for $50 cheaper from an reputable online store. Of course I know I am part of the decline – window shopping and testing products in a store and then buying them somewhere else that’s cheaper. But why should I have to pay a premium for the experience – the mark-up on the products is already so high, I think these luxury retailers need to re-assess where they make their investments. They need to have both competitive prices and create a luxurious shopping environment – not an easy feet by any measure. All of the recent data reveals that we Millennials are starting to spend more money on luxury brands, but we are doing a lot of it online. If the luxury stores want to get us into stores and buy luxury products you have to actually make it feel luxurious. This will not be easy to do.

Grant Sabatier

Creator of Millennial Money and Author of Financial Freedom (Penguin Random House). Dubbed "The Millennial Millionaire" by CNBC, Grant went from $2.26 to over $1 million in 5 years, reaching financial independence at age 30. Grant has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, NPR, Money Magazine and many others.

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