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What Shopping In Singapore Post-Quarantine Is Like

The pandemic has turned high-end stores into high-security mini-airports. But luxury is stylishly fighting back

For decades, luxury brands had mastered the art of the sale. The precise calibrations of product design, store layout, careful lighting, piped-in music and the professional staff kept you lingering, gazing, craving and eventually pulling out your wallet or purse.

But today even high-end malls look like mini-airports. There are layers of checks and security, zigzag queues around ubiquitous stanchions, staff and signages telling you where to go, and frequent safety announcements on the PA system. When you approach an individual store within the mall, this ritual has to be repeated, as if you’re now going through the boarding gate.

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All this is anathema to luxury, which thrives on creating exquisite environments to transport you to consumer heaven. Face masks, hand sanitisers and no-touch thermometers now commonplace in every store are generating fraught, unsettling reminders that your body is fragile and susceptible to illness.

With capacity restrictions, queues are common outside high-end stores such as Dior. Photo: Reuters

In such an environment, what will rescue the luxury store from extinction? Perhaps the same things they stand for – the emphasis on quality, nurturing of customer relationships, and bolstering of brand clout through exclusivity and conscientiousness. Lately, the expansion of omni-channel capabilities into digital realms has become more crucial, as second-wave infections keep older, deep-pocketed shoppers at home.

At the end of the day, luxury will thrive because a pampering professional facial will always trump your home-based five-step beauty regime. And no online shopping experience can surpass the simple buoyant pleasures of roaming through a luxury store and discovering a beautiful object on the spot. Right then and there, you can hold it in your hands, feel its exquisite material, marvel at its design, and – one credit card transaction later – bring it straight home.

This article first appeared in The Business Times.

Last Friday, I scheduled my appointment at Louis Vuitton through their online in-store appointment service. On the way to the store in Ngee Ann City at 10.12am, the Chanel boutique on the same floor was already filled with customers even though it had just opened at 10am. It was the first day of Phase 2 – were revenge shoppers out in force already?   Apparently, yes. At Celine, Fendi and Dior, the scenario was the same. They were not crowded with around five to 10 customers, but it turned out that there is a cap of 21 people (including the staff) allowed in some boutiques, like Louis Vuitton.   When you make an appointment online at Louis Vuitton, you will receive a text as to where you will be greeted by your client services advisor. Those who are apprehensive about crowds will be relieved to know that you can skip the queue downstairs and enter through the more discreet second storey entrance.   The safe entry protocols when you enter the boutique are standard. Temperature checks, hand sanitisers and, in Vuitton’s case, disposable latex gloves. It is recommended to wear the gloves especially if you’re purchasing leather goods. For every leather item you touch, you need to sanitise your hands and let it dry for a few minutes before you’re allowed to touch a new one.   Of course, all the client services advisors now wear black washable fabric gloves as part of their uniform. The hosts, who have more interactions with the clients outside of the boutique also wear face shields for added protection. Given the maximum in-store capacity of 21, Vuitton’s staff are on a nine-person rotating basis at one time, which means only 12 customers are allowed in the store.   In the Covid-19 shopping era, the customers will need to adapt to many new protocols, like longer waiting times as sections of the store need to be sanitised once a customer leaves. And, due to strict social distancing measures, physical contact is strictly prohibited. The brand takes the safety of their staff and clients as the utmost priority.   One of the perks when you shop at a luxury boutique is the level of personal interaction between the customer and the salesperson. Previously, when you would like to try a scarf, the salesperson will tie the scarf on you to demonstrate different styling options or assist you in extending the handle, or open the clasp on a four-figure handbag.   With the new protocols however, the client is expected to do it on their own by mirroring what the salesperson is doing. This may pose to be one of the biggest challenges in luxury retail because it may put a very expensive product at risk, through no fault of the client. Explaining or giving out directions through a mask may not be heard quite so clearly and mistakes may occur. There will be difficult clients and complicated situations. What if a zip gets stuck on a $25,000 dress and the customer needs help? Will social distancing protocols be slightly relaxed? If not, extra costs may be incurred to fix faulty items.   Reopening the doors of luxury retail may pose more problems than solutions if brands aren’t open minded and adaptable to the anxious reality of this pandemic.   Above: The second floor of the Louis Vuitton duplex store at Ngee Ann City.
After a two-and-a-half month wait, Phase 2 came into effect and all beauty businesses were allowed to resume operations.   According to Guillaume Nagy, Clarins Executive Vice President of South East Asia & Asia Pacific, all appointments for the next two weeks are already full. “Our customers are keen to return, confident with the safety measures that we have implemented,” he explains.   Step into the swanky new spa at Ion Orchard, and the ritual is all too familiar – Safe Entry check-in, temperature taking and travel declaration. The one-metre social distance between two people is in place. The spa manager emphasises that they have lengthened the intervals between appointments and treatments to avoid overcrowding.   Besides mandatory face masks, facial therapists must also put on face shields. Comforters are replaced with fresh disinfected towels and there is a disposable linen sheet to cover every bed. During the facial session, the customer takes off their masks and for a good 60 to 90 minutes, this feeling of freedom which was once taken for granted, is very much appreciated.   Post facial, there is a beauty room with the whole range of Clarins makeup for the customer to enjoy but due to hygiene purposes it’s been removed. Customers are still able to use the room but you will need to bring your own makeup.   For customers who wish to try the wide array of Clarins skin or beauty products, the beauty advisors will guide them through a “No-Touch Demo”. The serum you want to sample will be swiped on a cotton bud and you won’t be able to sample a foundation on your skin. But you will be given testers to try if you’re keen.   QR Codes for each product category allow you to scan and see the information and demonstration videos about each product.   The downside is that in-store on-the-spot product sales may be affected.   Soon, customers can try the new digital tool on their website called “Try it on Virtually” for customers to ‘try’ the brand’s make up, which will be launched in retail stores soon.   Regardless of the precautions, facials still go against standard health advice to avoid close physical contact, especially without masks for the client – which are inevitable in the beauty business. But as businesses need to reopen, the options for the undecided are: either stay in isolation or re-assimilate into society. Like dining out (where no one is masked during a meal) and everything else, the choice has to be a personal one.   Above: Clarins Skin Spa in Ion Orchard.
Watch boutiques reopened last week with mandatory safety precautions, hampering some of the customary hospitality extended to customers.   No tea or coffee in ceramic cups, just bottled water. No complimentary chocolates or candy, but you can help yourself to a free mask and a dollop of hand sanitiser. Every staff member was masked, and you had to listen carefully to make out their muffled words without the visual aid of moving lips.   That did not, however, stop queues from forming outside some boutiques. It was not because the boutiques were especially packed, but because social distancing measures drastically reduced the maximum capacity of each store. But if one peered through the glass walls or windows, one saw customers moving comfortably about, as if roaming through a museum.   At the Franck Muller store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), a handful of customers streamed in during lunchtime. Typically the store sees more, but travel restrictions also mean the mall was bereft of its tourist football.   O Wee Yong, senior vice president of Franck Muller, says the company is looking to strengthen its online presence: “The current situation has redefined how consumers interact with brands. They are now more receptive to an omni-channel commerce experience. And as we move towards greater digitalisation, we will continue to adapt and integrate our operations and retail experience.”   During the circuit breaker, Franck Muller has to “rely on social media a lot more, as well as explore other avenues, such as eDMs, to reach out to clients”, a move that will continue into the future.   Meanwhile at Piaget, the staff had been split and staggered in view of the contact they make with customers daily. Its boutique at MBS had hand sanitisers at every station, and could accommodate only five clients at a time.   Petronille de Parseval, managing director of Piaget South-east Asia & Australia, says: “The biggest challenge now is to reinvent retail and be more agile in delivering exceptional experience, while following all safety measures requested. Our sales ambassador will have to adapt and engage with customers sometimes outside the boutique.”   Piaget just launched a virtual boutique that allows customers to explore a realistic-looking showroom and home in on specific models. “The idea is to create a platform that brings a new shopping experience, with the look and feel of a boutique, and the possibility of having direct contact with our sales ambassadors,” she says. “The virtual boutique has been gaining traction.”   IWC Schaffhausen launched its virtual boutique even earlier in March. According to its spokesperson: “Online traffic for the IWC virtual boutique has exceeded 10,000 visits, a reflection of the current desire for digital connectivity… And indeed, development of digital connections and technology innovation for our retail business will continue to accelerate.”   Reports of a second wave of Covid-19 cases surfacing around the world means watch brands are not taking any chances – the coming months could be a case of digital or die.   Piaget’s de Parseval says: “We had hoped to see the Chinese phenomenon of ‘revenge spending’ taking place in Singapore. But I guess we’ll witness it when travelling restrictions are eased. We have a lot of regular customers from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia who love shopping here.”   Above: The Franck Muller boutique at MBS has seen a gradual pickup. Photo Yen Meng Jiin