THERE'S A GROWING DISTASTE among shoppers at luxury brand stores. Some recent press reports cite customers' complaints about inattentive staff ignoring their needs and about indifferent treatment. Even well-known customers have suffered indignities at some high-end shops: Two years ago Oprah Winfrey arrived at Hermes's Paris store--which, granted, had closed 15 minutes earlier for a private event--wanting to make a quick purchase, she had explained, only to be turned away first by a clerk and then by a store manager. Leave it to others to hash out how racist the incident was (although you can't name a more customer-unfriendly behavior than hatred, can you?). The point is, the problem of poor luxury customer service exists, and the proposed solutions are not solutions at all. Retail luxury goods executives are rushing to offer quick fixes like new store designs and new customer databases. These are the easy ways out, and will not solve the problem.
The root cause of the issue is that the luxury goods industry, perhaps more than any other, is stuck in a very traditional mode of product centricity, and execs believe that if they offer something, customers will automatically buy it. Luxury product companies are guilty of the highest transgression when it comes to customer centricity: In high-end retail goods' hierarchy of importance, luxury designers occupy the top spot. Designers are worshipped and their products are often presented to customers as if they should be grateful for the privilege of purchasing them. Decades (centuries?) of elitism and selectivity have engendered an Olympian level of customer contempt.
Luxury goods vendors' behavior, however, is not really unique; rather, it's an accentuated version of product centricity. …