Deliver ooh! The elite world of personal shopping
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It’s a Thursday evening and I’m rummaging through giant bags of clothes piled high on the bed in my Hackney flat. Inside I find a cuddly knit from The Row, a cotton and faux-leather trimmed Balenciaga coat and a pair of heeled wellies from Chloé. This luxury haul has been selected and shipped to me by my brand-new personal shopper, Alli, and has required almost no effort on my part.
Unfortunately, I have not suddenly come into a large sum of money, nor have I been sent a bunch of freebies. Rather, I am spending the week as an EIP. In Net-a-Porter speak, that stands for Extremely Important Person – even more important than a VIP, if such a thing can be imagined – and is the name given to the retailer’s top spenders. EIPs have privileges that mere mortals do not: personal shopping, complimentary premium delivery and invitations to special events. They also have priority access to shop new launches before they go live on the site, twice-yearly private sales and the option to pre-order clothes six months in advance. To become an EIP, you have to spend a certain amount each year with the retailer across any category. Sadly, Net-a-Porter will not disclose how much this is, although my account was credited with £10,000 for the purposes of this seven-day assignment, if that is any indication. (For the record, at the end of the week, everything had to be returned.)
The programme has, until now, not been widely promoted, as is usual for any service involving high-spending, and usually highly private, clients. But recently Net-a-Porter has been persuaded to broaden and demystify this previously closed-door service in order to entice more customers in. “If you think about it, our whole industry has thrived on exclusivity and a sense of mystery,” says Alison Loehnis, the president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter. “Some of that still holds solid today, but some of that is changing, and what is important is this idea of transparency and opening access a little bit.”
From early next year, the EIP programme will include four tiers, the privileges of which are clearly communicated to the public. If you’re a member of one tier, for example, you’ll know what higher-level members have access to, and how much you need to spend to get there. The company is also introducing Private Client Partners, a new kind of personal shopper reserved to service the top quarter of the retailer’s highest-spending customers.
High-net-worth individuals are an increasingly vital feature of the luxury-goods market. VIP shoppers are to retailers what high-rollers are to casinos: butter them up and they will continue to spend. That’s why last year Yoox Net-a-Porter Group announced that its luxury division was set to double its personal shopping and client relations team, hiring more than 100 people to work from hubs in New York, California, Dubai, London and Hong Kong. London-based MatchesFashion has reported double-digit growth of its private shopping sales this year in comparison to last; while Munich-based retailer Mytheresa has just expanded its personal-shopping service to include a team in New York. Once a customer has a personal shopper, these retailers know they will be up to 50 per cent more engaged with the brand, and in some cases sales increase by double-digit figures.
The need to cultivate, nurture and retain these top‑tier clients, who may only account for a single-digit percentage of the total number of customers but make up around one third of the sales, has become even more urgent this year, in which the luxury-goods market has been predicted to contract by up to 35 per cent. And when that market is projected to be worth an estimated €320bn-€330bn by 2025, it’s no wonder that personal shopping is growing across the board.
“The market has become more and more fragmented, and there’s so much competition that brands now need to go above and beyond to make customers feel special,” says Euromonitor International’s head of global luxury goods, Fflur Roberts. “It goes back to the foundations of luxury shopping, which are personalisation, customer service and exclusivity.”
My own extremely important week began with a call from Alli, an incredibly poised and polite senior member of the personal-shopping team, who speaks in the kind of buzzword-heavy language you’d expect from a Net-a‑Porter staffer. We go through my privileges and an initial wardrobe consultation, from the types of clothes I am looking for to my preferred colours and cuts. I say I’m after styles I can wear both to the (relatively casual) Financial Times office and around the neighbourhood where I live without attracting any sideways glances. I also note that I usually wear quite boxy shapes in neutral tones. Am I interested in trying colour? Sure, I say, knowing full well that I am not.
A few hours later, I receive a PDF file with an initial edit of clothes via WhatsApp – the preferred method of communication between EIPs and their shoppers, apparently – as well as a voice memo from Alli talking me through the selection. It’s a mix of established houses and brands I’ve never heard of, which is a pleasant surprise. I message back screenshots of the pieces I like, including a textured cream suit from Totême, a pair of lace-up Legres boots and a pleated faux-leather shirt from Nanushka. And after a few back and forths, my order is confirmed and a delivery slot is booked in; I haven’t yet needed to log into my own account. When the clothes arrive, I’m a little taken aback by how accurately they reflect my taste, especially considering the fairly scant information I handed in.
I refrain from making any kind of outlandish demands, although I’m convinced that Alli would have watered my plants during my next holiday, if I’d asked. Indeed, in the world of personal shopping there’s no request too big, nor any demand unreasonable. Stories abound of the lengths retailers and brands will go to satisfy the needs of their clients. “I’ve borderline sold the shirt off my back,” says Loehnis. “One time, I was wearing a blouse from a previous season at a dinner, and the EIP next to me was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love that’. I somehow managed, with the help of the team, to find one for her.” Another EIP client once requested 800 last‑minute items to create outfits to attend fashion week; her personal shopper had them delivered within 24 hours, and even helped her to pack.
Roberts has heard stories of personal shoppers in Russia flying to London to shop for their clients, travelling back with the products, and then flying again to return the ones they didn’t want to keep. “There was a couple in the Middle East who were very interested in this priceless piece from Boodles, and you can’t ship a product like that, so the chairman actually flew himself there with the necklace,” adds Roberts. “Eventually, they did buy it.”
Khaite founder Catherine Holstein, who is stocked on Net-a-Porter, has taken cues from the EIP programme to establish her own service: the brand gives VIP customers front-row seats to its fashion shows, access to pre-order collections, and the option to create custom pieces for big events. “We have seen double-digit increases year-on-year in sales from repeat customers, many thanks to our personal-shopping programme,” says Holstein. “Our pre-order sales to VIPs have made up to 40 per cent of our business during key months.”
For some, personal shopping is merely a convenient method for buying clothes. Others relish the added level of customer service and care. “The relationship between the personal shopper and the client is not always just a transactional one,” says Loehnis. “They really get to know these women, and these women really get to know our team – so much so that they are invited to weddings, bar mitzvahs… They become a sort of extended part of their special network, and in some cases, almost family.”
Meruyert Abdir, who is based between London, Kazakhstan and Dubai, has been an EIP with Net-a-Porter for around three years. She describes her personal shopper, Kunduz, as being more of a friend than a salesperson. “Personal shoppers know your taste and style, and you know that you can always contact them,” she tells me. “It doesn’t feel as if you are in a huge department store – you feel like you are in a boutique, and everyone is there to help only you.” In particular, Abdir enjoys the perks of being able to preview and reserve items before they go live on the site, and attending the events that Net-a-Porter throws. “Even during quarantine they held different events with designers and invited customers. We got to watch an amazing talk by [jeweller] Anita Ko, and I had a 30-minute consultation with Dr Barbara Sturm – my favourite brand. We talked through all the beauty products and she gave me advice on how to use them properly. It’s great that you get access to something that is not open to everyone.”
Beauty, and specifically skincare, is one area of significant interest within Net‑a-Porter’s personal-shopping portfolio. Another is fine watches and jewellery. “For us it’s really exciting to be able to work with clients on one-off pieces,” says Loehnis. “In some cases, they will go directly with us to a jewellery brand or one of the watchmaker brands and get something special just for them.” In terms of ready-to-wear, Loehnis says runway pieces usually get snapped up quickly, as well as products that are exclusive to Net-a-Porter. Handbags, especially the currently trendy tan-coloured styles, are always big sellers, “even at a time when people aren’t going out as much”. She also notes the success of “power brands” such as Loewe and Bottega Veneta.
While established houses perform well, personal shoppers also wield huge power in introducing their clients to up-and-comers, which can be an invaluable resource for younger brands. London-based Brazilian jeweller Fernando Jorge, who launched his business in 2010, has experienced this first-hand; he even says it changed his business.
“Most jewellery companies, like me, would have to have a store, or would have had to rely on investors to scale up. But through personal shopping I’ve managed to connect with enough customers early on, which means I can remain focused on design and on new collections.” From his east London studio in Shoreditch, Jorge hosts groups of high-profile clients who have flown in from all over the world. “They show up in three or four cars, and treat it as an adventure, coming all this way to a different part of London. They make an event out of it.” And when the personal-shopping team gets in touch to request specific pieces, Jorge makes sure they are available right away – even if they have to be flown in from Brazil, or finished being made in the atelier. “We always have to find a way to get them to London immediately.”
As the direct contact between a retailer and their top clients, personal shoppers are incredibly valuable to a company. “They are our direct pipeline to the customer,” says Loehnis. “They are our magicians.” So what does it take to be a good one? “You have to be a creative thinker, you have to be customer-obsessed, and you have to love the product,” says Loehnis, adding that “it’s obvious that you have to adore selling, and be very service-orientated”. Shoppers also have to be willing to be at a client’s disposal seven days a week, as well as have an encyclopedic knowledge about different brands and products. And there’s a lot to learn – a search for “blazer” on Net-a-Porter returns 594 results. “There’s a lot of choice out there on the market,” says Loehnis, “so it’s a way to cut through that.”
With shopping increasingly focused online, brands are still figuring out ways to make luxury more personable. “Having the human-to-human element is more important than ever,” says Roberts. “Being a bit more engaging, a bit more authentic, and being empathetic too.”
This isn’t lost on Loehnis. Her goal is to further harness technology – automation and more sophisticated tooling – to allow Net-a-Porter’s personal shoppers to do their jobs more effectively as well. It all comes down to keeping the client happy. Whether that’s flying in bracelets from Brazil, helping to pack suitcases or intuiting that those cream leather Legres boots would be perfect for traversing the streets of Hackney, this retail army is doing it very well.