Romancing the Shopper: Retailers Get Personal

Stores host intimate parties, while designers from Alexander Wang to Maria Cornejo hit stores to woo their customers in person.

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They’re not exactly Tupperware parties, but big retail players are getting personal with their customers.

Battling the recession, designers and retailers are wooing customers at intimate gatherings that range from informal fashion presentations in private homes or hotels to in-store events after business hours. The goal: to inspire shopping by offering an exclusive experience and interaction with fashion arbiters.

Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, among other stores, are pushing the strategy, which is cost-effective and represents targeted use of marketing budgets.

“Any time we can work one-on-one with customers we can do a much better job of customizing trend presentations — versus pulling a fashion show for a large group where you don’t necessarily know what they are looking for,” said Kimberly Grabel, senior vice president of marketing at Saks.

The luxury retailer is increasing these get-togethers throughout the 53-store chain — including flagships that previously focused on large-scale events like runway shows, she said.

Nordstrom designer buyer Margaret Hinojosa de Garza said she helped arrange an invitation-only cocktail party for about 65 women, who are among top customers, at the retailer’s store at Dallas’ NorthPark Center that featured Jason Wu’s fall collection. The designer appeared at the store a day late after his flight was canceled because of bad weather.

“The customers like to shop during these events,” she said. “They feel we are doing something for them and they do feel very special as a result. I have loved it. You can hear what they say and get their feedback.”

The company is using the tactic in about half of its 176 full-line stores, a spokeswoman said.

Sales at these events are relatively modest — usually less than $50,000 — compared with a blockbuster in-store trunk show by a major designer, which might bring as much as $1 million. However, the value of these gatherings is in building customer relationships, getting feedback, strengthening brand awareness and moving inventory.

Designer Abi Ferrin, who does about 25 percent of her business via home parties in which the hostess foots the bill in exchange for clothing, sees several advantages.

“I’m selling retail and getting full markup, which is helpful, and I’m developing new customers through a really personal approach,” Ferrin said. “It’s a more relaxed environment, so they are more apt to spend. A lot of people don’t want to be perceived as throwing money around. I don’t have that kind of resistance in a home show. They planned to come there to shop. I develop closer relationships and bonds with my customers.”

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