Selling Luxury Goods Online

The wisdom of selling expensive, high-end goods online has been debated since ecommerce became a reality. Many brands fear that products will lose their prestige if sold online. Purveyors of French luxury brands such as Chanel have been especially disdainful of ecommerce. In his book, The Luxury Strategy, French branding expert Jean-Noël Kapferer stated that a high-priced product ceases to be a luxury item when it is sold online. As recently as three years ago, only a third of luxury brands used the Internet as a sales channel.

But research by both Google and Forrester Research have shown that high-income individuals shop more frequently and spend more online than middle-income persons. Wealthy people have weathered the recession better than others and continue to purchase discretionary items both online and at physical stores. With the right features, in short, it is possible to sell expensive jewelry, clothing, and accessories on the web.

Components of a Good Luxury-Products Website

Information. The higher the price tag, the more information the customer expects. This is especially vital for products such as engagement rings and other expensive jewelry. Effective product presentation and options for multiple product views can deliver the comfort level required to convert a shopper into a purchaser.

Communication. An ordinary “frequently ask questions” page isn’t enough. An online chat option and a personal shopper can mimic the services of an upscale retail store. Customization and personalization are important to wealthy consumers. Luxury site shoppers expect reliable and prompt service combined with a value-added experience. A high level of interactivity is required to meet these expectations.

Recreate the boutique atmosphere. A retail luxury boutique relies heavily on visuals and decorations to create a calming but stimulating environment. While you don’t have to buy plush carpeting for your website, you do need to create a strong home page introduction to welcome and reassure the customer that he or she is in the right place.

A pleasant atmosphere is crucial to the shopping experience. Better technology now allows websites to provide some of the same benefits as a retail store. With pictures, always provide a zoom feature to show features and textures. Provide video clips to showcase clothing and jewelry.

Gucci, an upscale fashion retailer, uses high-quality photography and product presentation.

Gucci, an upscale fashion retailer, uses high-quality photography and product presentation.

Differentiate Yourself

As more luxury sites appear, it’s more important to stand out from the crowd, especially if you don’t have a well-known brand.

Develop a niche. For example, jewelry seller Blue Nile guarantees that its diamonds come from conflict free regions. Some high-end online clothing sites provide organic or eco-friendly materials.

Blue Nile sells expensive jewelry. Its "Ethical Sourcing" page explains where its products come from.

Blue Nile sells expensive jewelry. Its “Ethical Sourcing” page explains where its products come from.

Returns. Many luxury sites sell customized goods that are not practical to return. If that is the case, make clear that sales are final but offer some type of discount or incentive to unhappy customers for their next purchase. Luxury sites thrive on loyalty. Sellers that accept returns should provide an online return form and pre-paid return labels via email. Individuals who spend thousands of dollars on an item do not expect to pay for returns. Make the process as painless as possible.

A major consumer concern when purchasing expensive brands is that the item is real and not a knockoff. While shoppers can be certain that a brand’s own site is selling genuine goods, third-party sellers have to inspire trust that their goods are not counterfeit. If you are a third-party seller, make sure you are buying the genuine article; most brands can tell you the telltale signs of a knockoff. If you unknowingly sell a counterfeit item and the customer recognizes the fake, you should return their money.

Go International. Wealthy people in countries such as Russia and China have limited access to luxury retail stores but they comprise an increasing proportion of luxury buyers. There are many software applications that can help smooth out the logistics of international sales.

Advice From Experts

In an interview with eConsultancy, Andy Hood, founder of U.K.-based luxury shopping site Amara, recommended that luxury sites have a clear focus on high-end goods and not sell expensive products alongside relatively inexpensive ones. He also found that using online chat and eliminating the registration process increased his site’s conversion rate. Hood advised that luxury site owners make no changes to their properties between August and January so customers can deal with a familiar environment during the major holiday season.

Uche Okonkwo, an Independent branding analyst based in Paris and author of Luxury Online: Styles, Systems, Strategies, emphasizes the importance of providing a sensory experience on a web page. She states, “The challenge of selling luxury goods online is enormous. The luxury shopping experience is different from the conventional shopping experience. Luxury goods are sensory in nature and their purchase requires a high aesthetical appreciation and the utilization of the human senses of vision, aural, and touch.”

To translate the experience to a website, Okonkwo recommends extensive use of visuals, such as color-schemes, video clips, slide shows, three dimensional product views, and interactive Flash media. She also recommends music accompanying the visuals, using either loud, fast tempo or relaxing slow tempo sounds depending on customer demographics. Loud music encourages impulse purchases while jazz and soft tempo music prolong the time people spend shopping. For example, the Louis Vuitton website offers soothing music to accompany its fashion slide shows.

Louis Vuitton, the luxury fashion retailer, features background music with its product slide shows.

Louis Vuitton, the luxury fashion retailer, features background music with its product slide shows.

Probably one of the most difficult products to sell online is a wedding dress. Even though it is a high-ticket item, a wedding dress bought online is usually purchased by someone shopping strictly on price, according to Shirley Tan, former CEO of “Someone who can afford a higher-end gown, say $10,000, is less likely to buy online because she wants the full experience of having a fitting and having her family and friends see the gown on her.” As for the issue of fitting, Tan says gowns sold online are custom-made, usually in Asia and there are no returns. “But it is still cheaper to buy online and have the gown altered at a local store if it doesn’t fit.” Still, online wedding dress sites have to establish a comfort level and provide help with dress styles.


Wealthy consumers are a much sought after target market in an economy in which middle-income consumers have limited discretionary income. People will buy luxury items online but they expect a high level of service and an atmosphere that resembles a high-end retail boutique.

Marcia Kaplan
Marcia Kaplan
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