• Transform magazine
  • September 22, 2019

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Brand experience: Galeries Lafayette

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Pursuing a strategy that transcends the use of digital as a simple tool or tactic, France’s Galeries Lafayette is creating a new kind of retailer that unites the digital and physical worlds to ensure a more authentic, effective experience for customers and employees alike. Brittany Golob reports

There are constant reminders of the challenges retailers are facing in a digital society. High street closures leave shuttered, empty premises for months on end and major chains face bankruptcy while new players push for a bigger marketshare. The complexity of the retail market leaves traditional brands with few choices.

In Paris, Galeries Lafayette is one of the class of big, traditional retailers – the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue or Selfridges – that is innately tied to its sense of place. Its flagship, on the ‘boulevard’ in central Paris is a testimony to European grandeur and offers consumers a seemingly endless array of products and experiences. The company has expanded, too, with sites in five more cities and future growth planned across the Middle East and Europe.

But for now, it has turned its attention just a little way down the road from the Boulevard Haussmann, to the heart of Paris: the Champs-Élysées. There, it has opened a new 6,500 square foot venue in a peak location, nestled between Tiffany and the Disney Store. However, it hasn’t just opened a new department store, but implemented a strategy that seeks to change its retail experience and ensure the Galeries Lafayette evolves to embrace a digital future.

“The biggest mistake we think retailers make is treating digital as an aim; as a siloed experience with its own metrics and its own life. In our strategy, there is no split between the digital and physical experience. We wanted to create an experience and make it accessible through digital tactics and innovation to all our clients,” says Ramona Tudosescu, head of digital and innovation at Galeries Lafayette. It’s a bold move for a heritage brand, but one that may serve it well in a complex sector in which experience is king and every shopper walks through the front doors of a retail outlet with a smartphone in their hands.

The Champs-Élysées store is not just digitally integrated, but designed to be a digital experience, augmented by a physical space. This concept flips the approach many retailers have taken to digital, in which they have given iPads to employees and integrated touchscreens into fitting rooms. Galeries Lafayette goes further, inextricably linking the physical and digital experiences. Galeries Lafayette enlisted the digital creatives at European agency DVTK to introduce a new website. However, the website is only the beginning.

“Our main objective was to drive people to the store,” says co-founder and digital creative partner at DVTK Kim Boutin. “As this store provides an unprecedented branding and retail concept, we have sought to give it an outstanding identity online, setting up the new brand’s tone of voice on digital that would be understood by a fresh new audience coming from around the globe.” The website is not a typical e-commerce platform. It has only three sections: meet, floor guide and visit, all of which have corresponding experiences within the store itself. When shoppers first enter the space – digital or physical – they are greeted with a 3D animated brand mascot, called Ely.

Ely is welcoming and cheerful, without straying into the realm of the childish. The animated character is built from a set of changeable, monochrome blocks that helps it maintain its personality while guiding users through the site. “Since our objective was to augment the branding digital to create a unique voice online for the store, the idea of creating a mascot for Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées seemed to perfectly match this goal. During the creative process, we got inspired by pieces of design or art that was, in a way, trying to answer that question, ‘How can an interface feel human?’” says DVTK’s co-founder and 3D creative designer David Broner. The agency examined reference images like Japanese comics and interactive talking interfaces from a MoMa catalogue. The resulting character brings the brand to life, using 3D to craft an immersive experience.

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The character has an important function, though, which is to lead users throughout the store or digital platform, exploring the other elements of the new brand experience. Tudosescu discusses a sales revolution taking place at the Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées. “We no longer have sales assistants,” she says, “but personal stylists, recruited via Instagram, trained by our in-house retail academy with the right digital tools to continue the experience not only in-store, but also online and after the client leaves the store.” It’s an unusual approach to staffing, one that has seen stylists hired on the basis of their personalities, styles, consumer focuses and social followings.

These micro-influencers are highlighted by Ely online with short bios and imagery depicting each person’s style. “Because we are in 2019, and we live in a post-digital society where our clients look beyond a website or an Instagram account. They aspire for meaning, connection, fulfilment and digital can help augment all of these aspects that we find in our new concept,” says Tudosescu. Introducing and facilitating conversation with the stylists online builds a connection between stylist and consumer from the first interaction.

She adds, “When I first started working together with DVTK, my obsession was reinventing the core of the experience by democratising the service of personal stylists. Digital was just a tool that allowed us to tap into the needs of our generation of clients who are life-long learners, continuously connected and in search of human connections.”

On the Champs-Élysées, the 300-strong team of personal stylists are enabled to connect with their clients online as well as in person. Human interaction – still a major differentiator for the best of retailers – is still at the heart of the experience, but it has been facilitated by a digital foundation that mimics the ways in which people interact with their friends, both online and in person.

Galeries Lafayette has done this through the introduction of an app that allows personal stylists to connect with consumers – discuss their needs through messaging – and create a conversational, familiar relationship even before the customer walks through the front doors. The app has a playful, casual tone to it and has encouraged customer engagement. It’s still a business application, though, so DVTK had to find a way to ensure the functionality would feel similar to a consumer messaging or shopping app. “We believe the app has been greatly appreciated as it is assisting the staff in their everyday job through a playful interface. Quite often, B2B software won’t put such an emphasis towards the design element – their focus is more technical. Being functionally driven only, they are not sought to be liked by their users but only to serve a working purpose. We tried to do both here, and it seems that this decision is really helpful even for making the staff’s daily experience better,” says Boutin.

Many stores are integrating digital into their retail offers, yet authentically uniting the physical and digital seamlessly is still beyond the reach of most, because it requires a new approach to thinking about retail. It seems the Galeries Lafayette is making that leap. The Lafayette Group has explored new store concepts and digital experiences in its other endeavours but the Champs-Élysées store marks a step forward.

Tudosescu says, “The risk we took is that we focused on new standards and pure innovations instead of regular standards such as e-commerce, self-checkout or other digital activations that for us, were not disruptive enough or were high investments. Our approach was to define digital projects that are so integrated into the retail model they become almost invisible. For me, resilience comes from the power of progress and simplicity.”

It’s a bold strategy and one that might make similar retailers fear for their physical stores and face-to-face experiences. But, bringing digital into the shopping experience doesn’t have to mean eliminating all human interaction. “We don’t think that the future of retail is to replace human interactions with screens in store. We should use the metrics taken from the digital to improve the physical, make them in line and do the same the other way around,” Boutin says. For the customer, she adds, the digital and physical shopping experiences are already inherently linked – as customers research online, follow brands on social media and then may shop in store – but, until now, retailers had not thought in the same way.
Galeries Lafayette-Champs Élysées may help the brand avoid some of the pitfalls its compatriots have experienced in facing a challenging retail environment. Its ability to unite the brand’s physical and digital assets may pave the way for a new era in retail experience design.