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Why do luxury brand websites treat their users so badly?

Why do luxury brand websites treat their users so badly?

I’m nothing if not a sentimental old fool and so I was sure that the toughest challenge buying my daughter’s 21st birthday present would be dealing with the nostalgia, coming to terms with the realisation that our little girl has grown up, and trying to work out where those magical years have gone (teenage years not included in the “magical” bracket).

Oh how wrong I was.

She had requested a necklace (and even sent a web link so even her old man couldn’t screw it up) as a special present that might last through the years.  The Tiffany’s website helped me overcome any residual wistfulness, as their impenetrable, pedantic and unforgiving website helped me replace my mawkish sentimentality with frustration and anger.

Were it not for the Armageddon of a present–less party, the website visit would have been discontinued and the laptop defenestrated.

In the unglamorous world of UX bullshit bingo, the site quickly reached a full house:

  • The £15 next day delivery didn’t deliver on the next day. At the time of writing it’s the day after the next day and there’s still no sign of it. Sticking with the disaster movie theme, it would seem that next–day delivery is actually the Day after Tomorrow delivery.
  • Postcode requested twice for no reason, and the site didn’t like the space between the first four and final three characters, even though it would have been quicker to write code to manage the space than to produce the error message.
  • It didn’t like the space on the phone number either, even though it would have been quicker to write code to manage the space than to produce the error message.
  • When the basket was full and I wanted to check out, the main call to action was “book an appointment”. I needed to click a label–less small shopping bag to get to basket summary and the checkout button. The button took me to the “checkout as guest” nonsense that most of us haven’t seen and definitely haven’t missed since 2010.
  • The site kept trying to sign me up for memberships and accounts that I didn’t want.

It turns out it’s not just me who had that kind of experience on the website. It scores 1.7 (out of a possible 5) on Trust Pilot, with nearly three–quarters of customers giving it one star.  Here are the first ten Trust Pilot review headings at the time of writing:

  1. We were overcharged
  2. If I could give it 0 stars I would
  3. Absolutely zero customer service
  4. Awful
  5. Do NOT buy from this company
  6. Disgusting service
  7. Really bad service
  8. All that glitters isn’t gold at Tiffany
  9. Don’t buy anything from Tiffany co
  10. DO NOT BUY

Tiffany’s aren’t the only luxury brand caught up in this madness. Cartier “beat” them to the bottom of the barrel with a score of 1.6 (82% of customers giving them one–star). Van Cleef score 2.3 (63% one–star), Gucci 2.2 (67% one–star), CHANEL 1.9 (62% one–star), Dior 1.7 (12% one–star) and Louis Vuitton 1.7 (75% one–star).

Peppered in among the angry reviews were sugary over–the–top five–star reviews, which looked out of place, like the kind of review you’d ask a friend, family member or hired PR company to write.

In short, a range of luxury brands clearly have an online user experience which is nothing short of a shambles.

How did they arrive here?

The answer isn’t straightforward, because luxury brands have contributed handsomely to experience design and in particular the design of emotion. Their online customer experience (so poor, ill–considered and random) stands in stark contrast to their in–store experience (so meticulously curated, with an almost obsessional attention to detail – the décor, the music, the display, the lighting, the staff uniforms or clothing, the relationship building, the conversations, the ambiance, the packaging, the post–purchase communications).

This author does have some legacy poor experience and maybe even some spill–over PTSD from his involvement over the years in this sector. Around a decade ago, we were invited to pitch for the experience design work for one of the UK’s best–known luxury performance car brands and got down to the final two agencies being considered.  As part of the pitch process, we were invited to critique and audit their website, which was awful then and not much better now.

We based our audit around the two key elements of persuasive experience design, specifically desirability and ease–of–purchase, showing how both could be improved.  The desirability recommendations were readily accepted, but the ease–of–purchase ones were dismissed, almost angrily.  I recall at one stage, one of their people responded to a suggestion that we make the purpose of a particular page clearer by increasing the size of the call–to–action button; “we’re not Amazon you know” was the terse response. The implication was clear – that we didn’t understand their brand. I couldn’t help but think of a paraphrased version of the famous John Lennon quote “They say I don’t understand their brand, but I say they don’t understand their customers.”

Needless to say we came ‘runners up’ in the process.  That’s ‘first loser’ to you and me.

So perhaps we got here because luxury brands have a clear sense of customer needs in–store, but are either oblivious or dismissive of the differing needs of customers online?

In a store, the minimalist focus on the desirability of the product is complemented by the ease–of–purchase knowledge of the shop assistant.  The lack of product information (including price, if you’re in the kind of place this author can’t afford) encourages interaction between the customer and the assistant, who can answer questions and lead the customer from an initial enquiry, to a conversation, to a sale, to a post–sale conversation and wrapping experience, to a loyalty program. Each step of the way a competent shop assistant will ensure that the customer interactions are positive, persuasive and personal.  That customer will leave the store with everyone winning – the store because they have secured the sale and the customer because they will have been treated well and will feel the premium price provided value.

But online the customer doesn’t have the benefit of a shop assistant – the customer has to self–serve. This means that the website needs to fulfil both the emotional and pragmatic needs of the customer, as an assistant does in a store.  The pragmatic needs cover the specifics of the product, specification, price, returns and aftercare, with the emotional needs focused on building rapport, establishing trust and reinforcing desirability. When luxury brands focus purely on reinforcing desirability, they talk past their customer, fail to listen and with the honourable exception of 21st–birthday emergencies, typically lose that customer.

One can only conclude that hubris is at the heart of the challenge.  So drunk are these brands on their products’ desirability that they fail to listen to their online customers.  As a result, they don’t recognise that desirability is only one part of the online conversion jigsaw and that everyone would enjoy better outcomes if they stopped shouting past their customers with brand messaging and started talking to and with them about the things which matter to them as they consider buying their products.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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