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PARIS — Social distancing may be the new norm, but so, too, is getting up close and personal. While shopkeepers diligently apply bright, new floor markings to regulate store traffic, brands are also busy working behind the scenes to forge deeper, more personal ties with clients.

Customer relationship management has emerged as a key element to pandemic-era strategies as brands and retailers across the spectrum seek to steer their businesses through choppy trading conditions.

“What we are sure of is this crisis will end at some point, and it’s important that the brands actually get out of this tunnel in good shape — in good enough shape at least with their customer assets — the relationship assets — so that if they have cash to restart the engine, they can do that in the best possible way,” said Marc-André Kamel, partner and director of Bain & Company in Paris and leader of the firm’s global retail practice.

The firm, which built on experience gained in China at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, drew up a list of suggestions for fashion and apparel clients, which entailed updating their CRM playbook, organizing different initiatives to activate and reactivate clients on social media and adjusting and expanding customer experience in new ways. 

This also applies to wholesale clients and not just to end customers, counseled Kamel, noting that giving them attention can help a company gain insight about how the situation is evolving and whether they need to be replenishing orders quickly or not.

As brands rethink and bolster their systems, taking a personal touch is proving key, whether it is to prod consumers back into stores or just remain top-of-mind, so they’ll think of a certain label when ready to make a purchase. This has been the case for companies across the spectrum, from digitally savvy upstarts to historic European high-luxury houses. 

Italy’s digital-native tailor Lanieri, which was established in 2013 by former engineers Simone Maggi and Riccardo Schiavotto, was among labels noting that weeks of quarantine highlighted the importance of a human touch. The realization prompted the company to launch a digital service allowing customers to reach the company’s style advisers through a video connection, making it possible to take measurements and deliver advice on the right designs and fabrics for bespoke suits. 

The label used Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Meet and Apple’s FaceTime for the service, which has converted into actual sales, according to executives, and encompasses a 30-minute session for each client.

The company generates the bulk of its revenues, which were around 4.8 million euros last year, through its e-commerce channels, asking clients to provide their measurements themselves. But over the years it has also added five physical workshops in key European cities, including Milan, Turin, Rome and Bologna in Italy, as well as Paris and Brussels.

The new service has filled in the gap between the physical and digital sides of the business, observed Maggi. 

“We’re spotlighting the professional value of our employees that work closely with customers” in the stores, he said, noting the service gave the label a welcome lift, drawing the interest of international clients from Italy, Australia and Dubai for example. While Lanieri’s digital-first approach had sometimes represented a barrier for some, the pandemic had “shaken things up, boosting the digital confidence among consumers,” he said, adding the company plans to keep banking on the service even after the quarantine ends.

At Salon Septième, another recently established, digitally savvy label, executives kept in touch with  farflung clients through a newsletter — which took an increasingly personal tone. 

The Paris-based label sells high-quality separates to an international clientele — the bulk of business comes from the U.S. and Canada — and builds relations with clients through cultural events at its Left Bank salon, often drawing in people from nearby luxury hotels. 

Without the usual stream of international visitors into the French capital, founder Nancy Pedot and her team focused on her newsletter.

“We honestly were not looking at a lot of new orders as much as building our voice and being in this together,” said Pedot, a retail veteran who was previously chief executive officer of Gymboree, Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princesse Tam Tam. 

“We want you to enjoy this — take the time and dream a little bit,” she said, describing her communications with clients.

“We wanted to sound very engaged and empathetic,” she added. Pedot spoke in her newsletter of how she wore the label’s comfortable, luxury knits while walking her dog during confinement, and how another colleague, sheltering in Costa Rica, paired its cotton shirt with her bathing suit during the day, or dressed it up with jewelry in the evening. 

“We wanted to make our newsletters very personal,” she said.

And, in a nod to clients elsewhere in the world, the label transposed its trademark fashion sketches onto street scenes in San Francisco or Italy.

“So that we could say, ‘this is how it looks if you’re walking down the street here,’”added Pedot.

“It’s helped us develop the voice that we wanted, it made it more personalized and real — we really talked about what we were doing,” she said.

With most international travel still on hold, the executive is also working on strengthening ties through digital experience, calling on expertise from a theater and dance performer to provide coaching. 

“So we keep expanding this idea of a virtual experience with the client — it gives everyone a really amazing opportunity to rethink this. And for us it’s what we wanted to do from the beginning, but it pushes it forward more,” she said. 

Efforts to take client relations online have also prompted the transformation of traditional sales positions into something closer to that of a personal stylist. 

Martino Boselli, general manager of plus-size fashion label Elena Mirò, said the company took the lockdown period to not only draw up plans to outfit stores for safe browsing, but also to rethink future client relations.

“We had the opportunity to stop and think how our life will be in the future…and what our customers are expecting from our store,” said Boselli. The label decided to focus on special services for online customers, retraining its sales assistants to serve as personal stylists.

“We opened a toll-free number which is reachable form the web site, and our customer can call the toll-free number and have a personal stylist that will be fully dedicated to them while they’re browsing the collection on line,” he noted.

“The personal stylist will also give suggestions about how to mix and match, about the size, about the color combination, and it will be a kind of personal assistance that will be very personalized and tailored to our customers,” he said, describing the service. 

“We start with asking ‘show me your wardrobe, show me what’s in your closet’ and follow up with suggestions of what to buy,” he continued.

The personal stylist then prepares a small assortment of a dozen or so items to send to customers, who can choose and pick what they like and return the rest, paying only for what they’ve chosen.

Galeries Lafayette recently introduced online personal shopping, rushing to develop the service after a frustrating delay in authorization from local authorities to reopen its main Boulevard Haussmann flagship in central Paris. The department store developed the new high-end service with the start-up GoInStore, offering customers in France and abroad access to personal shoppers and brand ambassadors through live video.

The family-owned group also just recruited Guillaume Gellusseau, bringing in a longtime luxury goods executive from outside the company with experience in customer loyalty strategies to manage marketing and communications for the Galeries Lafayette and BHV Marais stores. The executive held a similar position at Bon Marché, where he created the Paris Left Bank institution’s loyalty program, 24 Sèvres.

“There is one thing I am used to saying — the biggest, the smarter, and the most effective CRM engine as a matter of fact is our store staff. Because they know our customer, they know what they like, what they don’t like, they know when they are good to make shopping sessions — they know many things about our customer and this personalization is so important and will be even more important for the future,” said Boselli.

Apparel companies like SMCP and H&M have noted a need for tailoring deals to a local clientele to entice consumers in China back into their stores, or to make a purchase online. 

SMCP said it was proactive on WeChat in the country, guiding customers with choices and directing them toward web sites for purchases, while H&M said it constantly adjusted local commercial plans to find the right deals to attract consumers there.

Even at the high end of consumption, where close ties are the norm, relations have taken a turn toward more personal ground, as the usual pomp, associated with prestigious events, has given way to a more human touch.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so connected with our VIP clients. I connected with most of our high-level clients, not out of commercial interest, but I wanted to know how they were doing, also their families, their children — where they were staying during the lockdown, if they managed to join their families,” said Hélène Poulit-Duquesne ceo of Boucheron, who connected with clients through WhatsApp and email.

Arnaud Carrez, marketing and communications director of Cartier International, echoed this sentiment.

“We never cut contact with our clients, all of our subsidiaries have been engaged in a considerable amount of work on this front,” he added, emphasizing the importance of “clienteling,” a term that refers to establishing long-term relations with important clients.

“One-to-one clienteling is truly essential,” he said, noting this was especially the case during the recent confinement periods.

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