Fashion designers offer 'retail theatre' to combat economic gloom


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Indy Lifestyle Online

Even before the curtain fell on London Fashion Week's procession of improbable or impractical offerings, the couture houses were turning the spotlight from fashionistas and on to real customers.

As the global economy falters, brands are offering "retail theatre" – cynics might call them gimmicks – from dinner parties in shops to celebrity appearances, personal stylists and even roller discos. The aim is to entice people to keep spending.

This weekend at Somerset House, Vodafone London Fashion Weekend, the postscript to last week's events, sees designers including Holly Fulton and Richard Nicoll offer discounts of up to 70 per cent off their collections, alongside manicures, music and cocktails.

Earlier this month, the Vogue Fashion Night Out included a bangle bowling alley at Hermes, a roller disco at Rupert Sanderson, electro group Metronomy play Paul Smith and DJs Queens of Noize spinning discs at Stella McCartney. It saw footfall on Bond Street increase by 92 per cent, while across the West End it was up 32 per cent.

Jewellery brands Boucheron and Asprey now regularly host dinner parties for clients in store, while this November, for the first time, champagne houses will come to Bond Street, offering wine tasting at stores more usually associated with jewellery and designer clothes. The invitation-only night, named Vendanges on Bond, has previously taken place in Paris and Monte Carlo.

Retail theatre is not simply restricted to top-end stores. Mango has held "Work It" nights, in conjunction with Stylist magazine, with free cocktails and goodie bags, while Clarks shoes offered chocolate truffles, Virgin Mary cocktails and the chance for shoppers to chat to designer and retail adviser Mary Portas at the launch of her collection last week.

Jace Tyrrell, spokesman for the New West End Company, said the high street has changed irreversibly and we should expect more theatre than ever before. "We've seen an increase in experiential shopping over the past couple of months, and will see more as retailers work hard for shoppers' cash in the run-up to Christmas," he said. "It's all about experience and added value – and the voucher is back in a big way. Meeting celebrities and giving discounts works as an instant marketing tool to push for customers."

Ms Portas said: "The only way for bricks-and-mortar retailers to compete with online is brilliant 'real life' shopping experiences. Retail is no longer about number of units on the shop floor – it's about offering a playground for your customers, whoever they may be. Throwing big exciting events is one way to draw a crowd – but I truly believe that the high street should invest in better experiences for their customers every day." Her shop, launched in House of Fraser, has bellhops, stylists and complimentary coffee. "I think that's the level of attention my customers deserve," she said.

Poppy Dinsey, founder of online fashion website What I Wore Today, said she believes that shops will continue to transform to remain relevant. "This is making sure bricks-and-mortar shops still seem important. Shopping events seem to happen every other week, while personal styling is offered free in many stores. Entertainers in shops, canapés and champagne are ways of trying to get more money out of consumers."

Katie Thomas, spokeswoman for the Bond Street Association, said: "Exclusive in-store events that in the past would have been more commonly attended through highly desirable member-only clubs are regularly created. Such is the trend for offering more than 'just shopping' that the store environment is being designed to provide intimate and private space that lends itself to VIP entertaining, whether it's a private view or wine tasting, an intimate supper with select guests or a meet-the-author book signing."

Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, said stores are adapting: at the top end of the market service is personalised with trunk shows and emails about new things to suit certain customers; at the more mainstream end of the market it is crucial to provide unique product and experiences.

"Fashion's Night Out started three years ago as a response to the economic situation," she said. "In this country it's more relevant than ever. I had expected that by now the original motive would have been lost, but many stores are having a tough time."