American fashion label Michael Kors once called Alibaba “our most dangerous and damaging adversary.” The comment, made in 2016, was in response to the spread of counterfeits on Taobao, the Chinese e-commerce giant’s online marketplace.
The company struck a different tone about Alibaba earlier this year: John Idol, CEO of Michael Kors, called Alibaba’s Tmall Luxury Pavilion “the perfect venue for us to communicate Michael Kors’ brand vision.” Luxury Pavilion is a dedicated site Alibaba created for high-end brands on Tmall, its general retailing platform. Chinese shoppers are engaging more with luxury online, Idol noted when he announced in July that Michael Kors would open a digital flagship on Tmall.
As luxury brands flock to China, they’re establishing footholds in a battleground that is comparatively underdeveloped in the West – online luxury shopping. The sector is so developed that online retailers in China are offering a better customer experience than traditional stores, according to technology and market research company Forrester Research. Even when compared with the service offered by companies in industries such as hotels, banks and airlines, online retailers ranked close to the top.
The top two ranked online retailers are Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao, which despite acting as intermediaries seem to have nailed the ease of doing business online. While both sites have rules governing customer service that vendors must follow to sell on the platforms, ultimately it’s up to virtual shopowners to interact directly with consumers.
Part of the luxury shopping experience is providing great customer service, and making your customers feel special. For luxury brick-and-mortar retail, brands have got the customer experience down to a science. But online retail is a completely different ball game.
“Hi Beautiful, I am online. Have a question? One moment, and I will solve it.” This is what you can expect to hear from a Taobao boutique’s customer service representative at almost any time of day. Taobao boutique’s customer service team is so prompt and amicable, you feel as if you’re having a real-time, in-store conversation with a salesperson – or even a close friend. And according to Forrester Research, Taobao’s smaller boutiques are running rings around luxury brands when it comes to online customer service.
While a consumer in the West can usually wait an additional evening for customer service to get back to them, a Chinese consumer would’ve already turned to other options. That’s because they’re used to getting what a Taobao boutique’s customer service can offer them: full-time customer service with minimum downtime. Most customer services offered by Taobao boutiques are online for over 16 hours every day of the week. When offline, automated messages are sent to ensure that customers are well-informed. This prompt and well-rounded service is a top priority for Chinese customers, particularly when it comes to online sales.
But the dedication of an online 360-degree customer service stands for something bigger than just promptness – it allows a company to build an intimate relationship with customers in an e-commerce environment. With Taobao boutique’s customer service, sales associates sometimes even try on a product for the customer. An online customer service team doesn’t just answer customer questions – it also works as a personal shopper and micro-influencer, mimicking today’s popular live-streamers in China.
Overall, brands need to build a relationship with their customers – both online and offline. Luxury brands are already doing that with their legions of personal shoppers in their flagship stores. What they now need to do is translate that relationship and intimacy online.