6 common misconceptions about (luxury) online retail


Nicholas Mir Chaikin | October 26, 2009

Nicholas Mir Chaikin, creative director of Spill, Parisian boutique web agency, dispels some commonly held myths about ecommerce and cautions against blindly following online business ‘rules’.

Nicholas Mir Chaikin, creative director of Spill, Parisian boutique web agency, dispels some commonly held myths about ecommerce and cautions against blindly following online business ‘rules’.

1. Ecommerce is hard.

Nothing about ecommerce is intrinsically difficult. Programs that manage the logic and workflow of buying online have been pre-packaged and available inexpensively or free since before Spill set up our agency’s first eshop in 1996. However, even today, brands separate design and communication strategies from their online sales strategies. This unfortunate situation is tantamount to a premium watch company buying two pages in Vogue; the first a sleek and sexy campaign and the second, a dull pack-shot followed by the text “this watch is very expensive, please refer to the previous page to see why you want it.” Ultimately it is a waste of resources for both brands and their agencies.

I have dubbed this incoherence “le iPeur” or “the iFear” (in French because I live in France) — it is basically a fear of computing and the misconception that unless the entity charged with building your eshop has 40 bespectacled engineers per room they will not be able to program a shopping cart. This follows the misconception that an entity of good designers cannot be an entity of good technicians. This is simply not true. Remember, designers are part artist and part technician, and in more “mature” arts the misconception of their mutual exclusivity has been eschewed. No one would assume that Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm could not engineer a building because he made beautiful windows, or that the design prowess of Ferrari implies that their engines are inferior.

Mammoth engineering firms are important for mammoth IT projects (think public utilities or social security) but will rarely serve the interests of brand image. The professions are simply distinct. Any reasonably good web-agency with a reasonably good IT director will be able to manage ecommerce — remember that web agencies are summoned to far more complex tasks these days: social networks. Most of us have had to build a social network for one start up or another so we should have no problem even with complex CRM situations.

The hard part is the same as it has always been: creating desire, communicating, and building image and goodwill.

2. Social features are necessary.

While this can be true for certain brands it tends not to be a prerequisite for a luxury brand’s success online. All the same, I have seen many a brief with “allow users to rate products.” NO. Never. These are, and should be, privileged relationships from brand to client, with brands profiting from user feedback. Building an Achilles heel into your own website is a mistake. While community building may be pertinent and important in certain circumstances, it must be extremely well thought out, with impeccably executed mise-en-scene. Community building cannot be achieved via a checklist of standard offerings on out-of-the-box ecommerce software.

Tweets, Facebook groups and other such tools are inherently outside of the brand space that your agency has created. Their use should be weighed in the context of the total brand experience — if they bring meaning to the experience please use them, if they do not, don’t. They can do more harm than good.

3. I need Magento! (or the buzz ecommerce software of the month)

And speaking of out-of-the-box ecommerce software, today’s flavor of the month is Magento. Before that it was OScommerce, before that it was Intershop etc. The good news is that these were, or are, all good programs. The better news is that the two more recent ones (Magento and OScommerce) represent a maturation of the industry towards open source and free software, a good thing for all of us. The bad news is that they might not be the best choice for you.

Magento is very good and complete software, well structured, feature-rich, it installs in seconds, and is perfect for the little shop around the corner. Why? Because, being a software package that is supposed to do everything for anyone, it has everything. It has a front-end, a back-end and an everything-in-the-middle-end. However when you need a specific front-end, and relationships with existing information systems (ERP, logistics, CRM etc.), and some haute-couture modifications, you will need to start taking it apart.

Any luxury brand will have important image guidelines and objectives. An ecommerce site should be built at the uncompromising service of those objectives and not adapted from an all-purpose tool with the hope of meeting those objectives. The complexity of “un-engineering” software for the purpose of re-engineering it will probably cause compromise and unnecessary complexity. Design and specification choices should drive the technology choices and not the inverse. Beware the brother-in-law, the database programmer, who read in PC World magazine that Magento was the best ecommerce software of 2009.

4. We must heed the Ergonomist.

I would not say that you want to confuse people, but beware the Ergonomist. This odd and mediocre profession is based on the notion that normalcy is superior to innovation and that focus groups should drive design. Luxury industries have not and can not work in that fashion. The products or fashions we create are not created by the consensus of a focus group but by individual artists, designers and stylists. Thus in our communication we must innovate and not be afraid to challenge and question traditional techniques. The Ergonomist will say “the search field must be in the upper right corner,” and I say “maybe!” The various stars of the vocation of web design did not get there by consensual design. The major success stories in the world of luxury industries did not communicate in consensual ways or design only consensual products. They innovated by creating desires or the need of something new. Successful communication and retailing continued such innovation. It must continue on the web as well. Throw away your focus group report (or take it with a grain of salt) and use the skills that are implicit to your industry. Karl Largerfeld would.

5. The fewer clicks the better.

Again, this is the battle cry of the Ergonomist. Various site rating or “report card” documents flying around the net put a great deal of weight on this single factor, without context or a mitigating “why?” While I concur that obfuscation is not desirable, the bigger picture of user experience must weigh in as the most important criterion of your brand relationship. There is nothing inherently wrong with an extra click if the user experience justifies it. Inversely, in some cases, the more clicks the better. People may be enjoying browsing, reading, watching and learning about a brand, as they might linger in a beautiful boutique. The long-term benefits of a rich brand experience may be more important than driving people to a quick checkout.

6. Send that newsletter!

Yes, you should, but only if you have something really important and motivating to say. Too often newsletters adhere to a rhythm (e.g. once a month) and not to real events in the story of a brand. Non-compelling newsletters result in subsequent newsletters being ignored, or worse, being relegated to the dreaded SPAM box. Newsletters should be considered as episodes in the unfolding tale of a brand, and your customers should thirst for the next episode.

Nicholas Mir Chaikin, Creative Director of Spill