Thursday, December 20, 2007

WSJ: Latest Luxury: The Store Concierge

For those of you who have more money than you know what to do with:

Latest Luxury: The Store Concierge --- Retailers Kick It Up a Notch To Coddle Affluent Clientele
By Ann Zimmerman
20 December 2007
The Wall Street Journal

Dallas -- Not long ago, Mark Krug, a concierge at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, dealt with a panicked hotel guest who had arrived at 10 p.m. in an irreparably ripped pair of pants.
The executive had an important business meeting the next morning and needed new slacks to match his suit jacket. Mr. Krug knew exactly what to do. He dialed the cell phone of the concierge at the Dallas store of luxury retailer Barneys New York. The concierge, Gary Jackson, who goes by the name Jackson, opened the locked store, scooped up some potential selections and brought them to the hotel by 11 p.m.
"It made us look good and it gave Barneys fantastic customer loyalty," say Mr. Krug. "I call what Jackson does 'making magic.'"
In the race to attract customers, luxury emporiums are doing what the best hotels have done for decades -- installing concierges. Customer service has always been the hallmark of luxury retailers. But Barneys New York (a unit of Dubai World) and Nordstrom Inc., in particular, have kicked it up a notch by stationing concierges at several of their highest-profile branches to fulfill an array of customer requests that have nothing to with shopping -- for example, obtaining seats at the best restaurants or arranging admission to the hottest clubs. In return, the stores say they gain new customers and foster deeper loyalty in their old ones. It is another way for retailers to set themselves apart in a world where even the best stores often carry similar brands.
Seattle-based Nordstrom, for instance, has concierge desks in eight of its 101 stores. They are in stores in the largest cities and serve in part as a local chamber of commerce, providing information about the city's sites, best restaurants and other areas of interest. Among other tasks, they also deliver merchandise to people's homes or hotels at no charge.
Saks Inc. has concierge service in stores in its biggest cities and tourist towns. The concierges will give customers water, take returns or help answer questions about bills and for the best customers can arrange extra-special services. A valued customer of the Manhattan Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, uses the store's visual team to decorate her home for the holidays, according to Suzanne Johnson, general manager of the store.
The stores with concierges say the service is available to any customer, regardless of how much they spend. But clearly, the extra mile is expended on the customers who are best known to the store. Several of the concierges say not all customers know their cellphone numbers, for instance, for getting last-minute favors.
For sending them business, restaurants, hotels and clubs often comp the concierges. But the programs aren't without their risks. Mr. Jackson, the Barneys concierge in Dallas, recalls calling the VIP manager of a new private club to get a store customer on the guest list. The manager called him the next day to tell him the customer had drunk too much and started a brawl. "I made it clear to the customer I wouldn't be rebooking him in the future," he says. "Their behavior reflects on us as well."
Barneys's concierge program started about a decade ago in its store on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Taylor Piedra, a former sales associate for Barneys, pioneered the program and now trains the others, who work in Boston, San Francisco, Dallas and its soon-to-open Las Vegas store.
Stationed right inside the entrance behind a custom-made teak and leather desk, under a sign saying Concierge Services, Mr. Piedra is sort of a ringmaster and tour guide. Like hotel concierges, he has sources that provide hard-to-nab theater tickets. And he knows exactly who to call to get his best customers into the newest, hottest restaurants.
One recent day, he gets an email from Lisa Jurick, a customer from New York's Long Island who has heard that the Waverly Inn restaurant in Manhattan's West Village only takes reservations two days in advance. Then she tells Mr. Piedra she wants reservations for two weeks hence for "five peeps." Mr. Piedra makes a note of it. "He is the love of my life," says Ms. Jurick. "When I want something, I want it now and Taylor makes it happen and with such calm."
Mr. Piedra's services are free, and Ms. Jurick says she never tips him, but does give him lavish Christmas presents. Last year, it was a Philip Stein Teslar watch, which retails for more than $1,500.
While Mr. Piedra doesn't do any direct selling, he drives sales nonetheless. His computer has bookmarked a currency converter, to help foreign customers figure out just how much money they are saving on their purchases with the dollar being so weak. "Finding out the exact savings can clinch a sale," says Mr. Piedra.
When Kevin Dyson became the general manager at the Manhattan Barneys, he asked Mr. Piedra what exactly a store concierge did. Mr. Piedra replied that he dug for answers to customer questions and didn't quit until he found them -- "like a ferret, but an elegant ferret."
During his stint, he has had to answer some far-fetched questions, once including where to find a real hippopotamus jaw. Mr. Piedra, who didn't ask why the customer needed it, found a little taxidermy store in Soho that had one.
Mr. Jackson, the Dallas Barneys concierge, plays a different role. He serves as the store host and has been essential to help building clientele at the year-old store. Barneys's previous attempt to crack the Dallas market failed in the 1990s. Jackson stocks beer, wine, champagne and the best customers' favorite liquors. He remembers every customer's name like a good bartender and is out every night finding the new chic watering hole. "Every restaurant and club in Dallas wants our customer," he says, whose background includes designing furniture and jewelry.
He has become something of a celebrity in town, invited to 50 events a month. An out-of-town customer once corralled him to squire his daughter, a local college student, and her out-of-town guests around town to the newest in nightspots.
Last week, a TV actress was shopping in the store when a man who pretended to know her threw his arms around her and kissed her. Mr. Jackson intervened. The actress was upset that the man had gotten his cologne scent on her and asked for a disposable wipe to get it off. Jackson searched all over the mall until he found one.

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