It seems as though no amount of gimmicks can save department stores in this online “click and send” culture. So what is connecting the customer to the merchandise? Lately there has been a revival of something called “social selling.” Trunk Shows! A throwback to Avon, Tupperware and Mary Kay perhaps. But so upscale, these 1950s forerunners would be jealous.
Here’s how it works. Invited guests meet at the hostess’s house. Everyone has some wine and enjoys a little social interaction. Then you get to sample makeup skin care and fragrance, try on clothes, bags and bracelets in the privacy of a lovely living room amidst laughter, conversation and fun.
The result? A LOT of spending. According to the Direct Selling Association, more than 18 million people were involved in “direct selling” in the U.S. in 2016, generating sales of about $34.5 billion, and growing.
Granted, the concept of selling directly to your friends has been around since that iconic Avon Lady came calling. But the sales model is being boosted by new trends over the last few years. Thanks to social media, salespeople now have access to bigger networks and operate like other members of the gig (working at a series of short-term positions or”gigs”) economy, earning money in ways that suit their schedule.
The sales workforce in this sector is 77% female and the most successful brands are predominantly for women: Cabi, Worth, Stella & Dot, Beautycounter, Rodan + Fields, and Ellie Kai are blowing up. Globally, direct selling increased by 7.7%, reaching a new revenue record of $183.7 billion.
Meanwhile, traditional brick-and-mortar retail is in free fall. More than 8,600 physical stores will shut their doors this year, four times the number that closed in 2016, which translates to 147 million square feet of retail space vanishing. In the midst of this brutal retail climate, social selling appears to be offering consumers something that is missing from both the brick-and-mortar experience and e-commerce.
In most social selling gatherings, following refreshments, the evening’s sales specialist presents the collection, offering ideas about how to wear each piece. Usually, clothing is priced on par with Ann Taylor or Banana Republic, from $69 for a colorful camisole top to $189 for a trench coat. The clothes aren’t particularly cheap, but the women who attend trunk shows aren’t necessarily looking for a deal. They’re looking for someone to tell them what to wear to work or a beach party. Plus, enjoying a fun girls’ night out while simultaneously sorting out wardrobes for the next few months.
These women don’t have time to spend hours rifling though racks of a boutique, and as people who grew up shopping in physical stores, they’re not inclined to scroll through pages and pages of outfits online. Direct selling brands are filling an important gap in the marketplace by catering to consumers who appreciate being able to touch products and try them on without the pressure to make a quick decision that often comes with a visit to the mall. Where they may have had a bad experience with in-store customer service.
At trunk shows, clients can build relationships with stylists, asking for advice at the party and then by email, text, or Facebook later on. Many sales specialists regularly alert clients when new styles come in that they will like. The relaxed, friendly atmosphere is meant to foster inclusion and acceptance, so no one feels judged for her body or personal taste.
Of course, amid all the bonding and sisterliness, the bottom line is: These parties are perfectly calibrated to entice attendees to spend their entire clothing budgets on the collections being presented.
Apparently, women who go to trunk shows can spend three times as much as they do on line. So the message is — no matter how great online shopping is — women still want to touch and feel things and talk with a whole bunch of other women for validation and gossip.
The question is who needs stores? Just dial up an independent sales specialist from the trunk show label of choice and find a lovely home and willing hostess to stage the whole setup. Then just call the caterer and florist, plug a credit card reader into your cellphone and away you go. It’s trunk showtime!
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