Non-essential retailers will be allowed to open in the UK from this coming Monday. In many countries – like our home base the Netherlands – they’ve already been operating for several weeks. ‘Open’ has several caveats, of course, with the experience running the spectrum from functional at best to frustrating at worst. New post-COVID safety protocols will prove challenging to implement irrespective of retail sector, but for those operating at the luxury end of the market, maintaining even a semblance of the in-store customer journey may seem impossible.

That’s why many high-end fashion brands and department stores aren’t even trying. Instead they’re making use of their properties in a different way, one that only requires the staff, not the customer, to be onsite. Call it personal shopping for the Zoom generation. In Paris, Galeries Lafayette will connect you via video chat to advisors from leading brand concessions such as Prada, Off-White, Kenzo and Hermès, while those who want to explore more broadly can book in a tour with an in-house personal shopper. At London’s Selfridges, a similar service has been available to the department store’s top-tier shoppers for some weeks, but will be bookable by the wider public from 15 June. Stand-alone stores are also exploring this new channel, with Dries Van Noten in Paris offering 50-minute video consultations. Customers fill out a short form detailing what sort of items they’re looking for beforehand to streamline the process.

The livestreaming e-commerce market could hit €119.8 billion in China alone in 2020, up from €2.4 billion in 2017

Livestreamed shopping experiences are hardly new, especially in Asia, where the appetite for so-called ‘shoppertainment’ has exploded over the last five years. Research by iiMedia suggests that the livestreaming e-commerce market could hit €119.8 billion in China alone in 2020, up from €2.4 billion in 2017. Platforms like ShopShops allow Chinese consumers – 300,000 people are currently signed up – to tour otherwise inaccessible western stores, like Opening Ceremony and T.J. Maxx, via an on-the-ground guide. According to Vogue Business, ShopShops users spend an average of €88 a month. Startups like US-based Hero provide a white-label service for brands such as Levi’s, Nike and Intermix, as well as more premium names like Harvey Nichols, John Hardy and Chloé, with claims that those who connect with store reps through their service are 14 times more likely to convert and three times more likely to visit a brand store in future.

The highest tier of brands might find livestreaming trickier to navigate than their middle market counterparts, however. ‘The experience of buying a luxury good is a huge part of its commodity value,’ writes Luxury Society’s Alexander Wei. ‘It is challenging to replicate the offline buying experience via livestreaming.’ Part of this challenge is spatial, with the context in which livestream shopping occurs just as important to luxury consumers as it is when they shop in person. ‘Luxury goods need to be showcased within a specific type of environment to maintain the brand’s image, driving up requirements (and associated costs) when it comes to the livestreaming host,’ Wei argues.

What works on camera isn’t always the same as what works face-to-face

It might seem that most luxury marques are already well placed in this regard, having likely already invested in premiumizing the look and feel of their footprint. But what works on camera isn’t always the same as what works face-to-face, especially when it comes to lighting, noise and the distraction of other shoppers around. That’s before you consider the detrimental effect having sales associates presenting to camera while navigating shopping aisles might have on the experience of those customers who have actually made it through the door. That’s why Gucci’s venture into livestreaming has seen them invest in the creation of a faux-store-cum-film-set. The space is part of the Gucci 9 customer-service centre in Florence, fitted with TV-style lighting. The brand has several such call centres throughout the world, many of which are noted for adopting the same visual standards as Gucci’s customer-facing locations – the US version was personally designed by creative director Alessandro Michele. If this new channel captures the attention – and spend – of numerous high-net-worth clients, retail designers will have to take note. Thinking about on-screen, as well as onsite, customers will become a consideration for brands when speccing their future shop floors.

Read our series on post-pandemic retail design here.