Monday, May 29, 2023

Luxury brands need some bureaucratic love.

This article was written on February 21, 2021.

Luxury retailers can learn pandemic-responsiveness from the U.S. Passport Office.

One of my favorite luxury brands, considered the bellwether of innovation, seems to be struggling to cope with the pandemic-related stress on its systems. While I arrived on time at their retail store for a repair-appointment, it took 30 minutes before I was allowed into the store. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed exemplary service from Edward, their knowledgeable and earnest technician. The retailer is, after all, known for setting the gold standard in customer care. However, COVID-19 has required a reconfiguration of their in-store experience. This seems to have tripped the luxury brand.

When I arrived for my appointment, I walked enthusiastically into the store, only to be blocked by the outstretched arm of an intimidating security guard. He asked me to wait in one of three lines formed outside the store. The saga of my repair appointment continued to unfold over the next two weeks as I had to revisit the store a few more times and wait in line.

At each successive visit, my wait time and the choice of the line in which I was asked to wait varied. The security guards outside the retail store were totally in charge of the brand’s luxury experience, improvising rules. My wait time depended on primal skills, like the use of body language when the guards were making a visual assessment to decide my fate, projecting confidence through sustained eye-contact with the influencer guards, my use of persuasion to be allowed to choose the shortest line, and walking up to eloquently reason with them that it was unfair to make me wait in line on each visit for the same repair order especially when the technicians had clearly said I would be a ‘walk-in’.

Humor notwithstanding, for a luxury retailer to trust its brand in the hands of guards from a private security agency seems reckless. What customers first encounter almost resembles crowd control by bouncers outside some seedy night club.

In contrast, consider the Passport Office. Pre-pandemic, it was a chaotic room stuffed with families carrying wailing kids while the officials calmly shuffled papers and expired passports. During the pandemic, my visit to renew my passport was a markedly better experience than that at the luxury retailer. I walked in at the appointed hour. People waited their turns in the parking lot. The bureaucratic brand trusted its system, and more importantly, its customers.

Bureaucracy is not often associated with creativity. Luxury brands that pride themselves on building a brand perception of cool creativity do not want their brand to be associated with anything ‘bureaucratic’. However, a well-oiled innovation machine can get derailed when not built upon reliable systems that allow creative work to forge ahead. A robust bureaucracy provides for flexibility, just like expansion joint gaps that accommodate expansion of railroad tracks in hot weather. Bureaucracy fosters the dependability that luxury brands need now.