A Department Store Veteran Shares Her Keys for Post-pandemic Success

PARIS When Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées opened in 2019, many features it introduced were fairly new to French retail.

The store was designed to reflect the way people shop online, with products grouped by styles and trends, instead of brands, and a staff of 300 “personal stylists,” recruited via Instagram, acting as a mixture of style and trend experts, cultural influencers and high-end hotel concierges.

Located in a soaring Art Deco building, renovated by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, the store introduced one-of-a-kind concepts such as Citron, a Provençal-style café designed by Simon Porte Jacquemus, and a fine jewelry space run in partnership with Dover Street Market.

The project was plagued by challenges from the outset: the opening was delayed due to violent anti-government protests by the gilets jaunes movement. Then came a 50-day transport strike during the crucial holiday season, and finally, the coronavirus pandemic.

But Nadia Dhouib, the architect of the store’s strategy, says the last 18 months have only confirmed her vision of the future of retail.

“What we designed was a place that delivers a real experience in-store, where the act of purchasing is almost secondary,” she says. “A lot of people were confused at first, saying they didn’t understand the experience, but today, it seems that we’re moving increasingly in this direction. People have changed their habits.”

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Since leaving her job as managing director of Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées in May 2020, after a 15-year career at Galeries Lafayette Group, she has founded her own retail consultancy, Rethinkretail Advisory, which helps brands, investors and start-ups in the retail and fashion industries to transform and develop new business models.

As repeated store closures have accelerated the migration of customers online, she recommends that retailers capitalize on the virtual customer relationships they were forced to develop during lockdown and double down on memorable experiences.

“You have to give people new reasons to go into a store. Retail today is competing with: ‘Do I go to a restaurant or an art gallery, or hang out with friends?’” she continued. “The stores that succeed are the ones that can recreate that feeling.”

She points to the recent opening of Kith’s flagship in Paris, located in the historic Pershing Hall Building, which includes a Kith for Sadelle’s restaurant and a rotating activation space, as further evidence of the trend.

“A store like Kith in Paris is all about experience,” said Dhouib. “People go to these places to see and be seen, which is interesting. You don’t get that at all with the digital experience, since it’s completely anonymous.”

Still, she’s a little over ready-made Instagram corners. “Today, people are capable of taking a nice picture wherever they are. You no longer need a designated corner, even if creating an Instagram-friendly design was something we thought about a lot at the Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées store,” she said.

“I think people are past that now. They’ve become so expert at getting the shot, they don’t need you to set it up for them. They want to find the best angle for them, something that hasn’t been dictated to them,” Dhouib reasoned.

One thing she doesn’t see going away is the trend for sales associates to act as personal shoppers. During lockdown, when setting up appointments to visit stores became a necessity, many employees established new relationships with existing and prospective customers via text message or WhatsApp.

“A couple of years ago, that still felt a little American or overdone by French standards. People thought that if a sales adviser sent them a message, it was intrusive. Today, it’s become the norm. So the question is, how do you transform that and professionalize it so that this trend doesn’t fade away?” she asked.

“If retailers lose that, it’s a real step backward, so I think even if you’re a small company, it’s important to develop a real customer relationship management database,” she added. “It sounds easy, but it’s not. A lot of brands have the sales force, but they’re not necessarily equipped to understand and structure a CRM tool.”

Once the basic contact details are in the system, it’s important to tailor the content and frequency of the messages to the target audience.

“Knowing how often to contact your customer is a real balancing act. I work with some e-tailers and I tell them, ‘Guys, a message per day is a lot,’” she said. “I would try to work on software that helps you to calculate how many messages on average a person is willing to receive without unsubscribing.”

Equally important is creating a fluid experience between the online outreach and the actual experience in-store. “You have to do it in a way that’s natural, consistent and relevant,” she said.

“For smaller retailers, the challenge is how to produce content for Instagram and activate their customer base. It’s about finding the right tone of voice so that it’s distinctive and attracts followers. There are no easy answers, but I think the answer lies in their DNA and their organization,” she said.

“This might also be an opportunity for retailers to give their teams both a framework, but also a certain amount of freedom,” she added. “It’s important to empower sales associates to make them enjoy what they do.”

For large groups like luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, where the hierarchy tends to be more rigid, the key lies in delivering impeccable service, she said.

“It doesn’t require a big technological breakthrough. It’s more about being able to access information about the availability of different sizes and colors, to really deepen the omnichannel aspect of shopping,” she said. “What’s missing is a certain fluidity.”

Going forward, Dhouib sees technology playing an ever bigger role in stores. In addition to the growing trends of live shopping and mobile payment terminals, she foresees more cashier-less stores where you scan your card at the entrance, and items are automatically deducted — along the lines of Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology-enabled stores in the U.S. and U.K.

Dhouib also expects growing use of facial recognition to secure payments and forecast foot traffic in stores. “For me, the pandemic is an accelerator for that type of thing,” she said.

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