(Bloomberg Opinion) — Oscar de la Renta, a brand that is a regular on red carpets and a mainstay of posh department stores, has just turned up somewhere decidedly less opulent: Amazon.
Amazon.com Inc. recently launched Luxury Stores, its latest effort to become a go-to destination for designer goods. Select Prime members can access a new section of Amazon’s app that showcases $2,790 handbags and $8,990 gowns. Oscar de la Renta is among the early brands to participate, along with Altuzarra and Roland Mouret, maker of the close-fitting Galaxy dress beloved of celebrities.
While Amazon under CEO Jeff Bezos has successfully muscled its way into just about every category of retailing, luxury has remained difficult for the e-commerce giant. High-end brands have been hesitant to put their wares on a marketplace that sometimes has counterfeit versions of their goods. They’ve also worried that it doesn’t feel terribly luxurious for their $1,000 jackets to be in a digital shopping cart alongside dish detergent and extension cords. This time, though, Luxury Stores is arriving amid a pandemic that has rattled shopper routines and brand strategies. If Amazon can’t get traction at this opportune moment, it might never be able to do so in this category — at least not on its own.
As part of its pitch, Amazon is giving luxury brands control over pricing and product assortment. That gives these labels incentive to try the new platform just as the old way of doing business is clearly crumbling. Some of the luxe set’s longtime partners are disappearing or on shaky ground. Barneys New York began liquidating even before the arrival of Covid-19. Once the pandemic hit, the resulting business shock led Nordstrom Inc. to close 16 stores and put Neiman Marcus Group in bankruptcy proceedings (it emerged only last month). While Lord & Taylor wasn’t much of a luxury destination by the time of its recent liquidation, its collapse sent warnings about what could befall other department-store chains.
It also helps that, earlier in the pandemic, Amazon partnered with Vogue and Council of Fashion Designers of America on a digital storefront that was meant to give a boost to independent designers who had been rocked by the crisis. Now that industry kingmaker Vogue effectively has given Amazon its blessing, perhaps that offers permission for luxury brands to do the same.
Luxury Stores will only be as good as the brands that participate, though, and Amazon’s past efforts to court marquee brands haven’t always gone well. Nike Inc. piloted selling some goods on the site, only to pull the plug in 2019. So far, the new platform doesn’t feature any labels that are owned by industry titans LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, Kering SA or Cie Financiere Richemont SA — a pattern that, if continued, will make it difficult for Amazon to get credibility with luxury shoppers.
For this group, the shopping mission isn’t about needs. It is about wants – to fit in and to feel good. Even the language of selling luxury is different. It is clear from Luxury Stores’ shop-in-shop setup that Amazon understands it must bend to those realities. The photos, videos and product pages have a curated feel that differs from the retailer’s typical, online garage-sale vibe. Product reviews, a hallmark of the main Amazon site, are not currently used, helping brands maintain control of the perception of each garment. The luxury section also has a new tool that allows shoppers to see certain garments in 360-degree detail, worn by several women of varying sizes and body types. This is something that many will find legitimately helpful, and a differentiator from rivals.
These touches may not be enough to pull shoppers away from well-established, immersive luxury sites such as Matchesfashion Ltd. or insulate Amazon from nascent shopping efforts from non-traditional players such as Instagram and even TikTok. And although top-end buyers may not be shopping on New York’s Fifth Avenue or London’s Bond Street, they still want the thrill that comes with an extravagant purchase. For luxury online retailers, that means kid-glove service and beautiful packaging. Net-a-Porter meets every fashion whim of its very top spending clients through an army of personal shoppers, free premium delivery and even advice on the hottest places to visit.
Amazon also should be worried that brands could use it as a short-term Band-Aid, not a long-term solution. Matthew Woolsey, former Net-a-Porter managing director, points out that luxury flash-sale site Gilt was able to get traction during the 2008-2009 economic downturn in part because upscale brands were stranded in an “inventory purgatory” with a glut of product they badly needed to unload. That dynamic eventually dissipated. Of course, Amazon is a much more formidable retail beast than Gilt. But now that another moment of economic calamity is here, it’s possible luxury brands repeat that pattern, simply turning to Amazon out of desperation and retreating from the platform when things get better.
If Luxury Stores fails to establish Amazon as a bling king, the online juggernaut should consider an acquisition as a way to get there. Yoox Net-a-Porter would be the most obvious purchase. If its owner, Richemont, were to be bought or merge — as has been rumored occasionally — it could come up for sale. The platform was valued at $6 billion when the Swiss group acquired the 50% it did not own almost three years ago, a rounding error for Amazon. And even though the unit of which Yoox Net-a-Porter is a part lost money last year, Amazon would likely look past that; the site’s valuable relationships with big brands and experience providing service to demanding clients would be the draw.
An alternative could be Matchesfashion, whose biggest market is the U.S. Funds advised by Apax Partners acquired a majority stake three years ago, valuing the business at about $1 billion. It is now approaching the time frame when private equity investors typically seek an exit. The online retailer has also appointed a new chief executive, Ajay Kavan, and a new chief operating officer, Jason Weston, both from Amazon.
For now, though, Amazon should focus on lining up heavy-hitter designers and piling on the lavish editorial content to try to make Luxury Stores a must-visit. The pandemic-related flurry of shopper and brand recalibration won’t last forever. This might be its last, best chance.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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