Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No Holds Barred: Social Selling

“Social selling” is a throwback to Avon, Tupperware and Mary Kay.
by Blair Sabol

Desperate times call for desperate measures — and I am not just talking about “Fire and Fury.”  Look at Saks Fifth Avenue Flagship store installing their latest attempt at merchandising “experience” with their 2nd floor “The Wellery” — a kind of ad-hoc upscale fitness center featuring avocado juice and fat removal products along with fitness classes taught by ex-convicts called “boot camp” and vegan non-toxic mani/pedi’s that promise to “help with focus, memory, increased confidence and overall wellness.”  All done in-between racks of Armani jackets and Burberry skirts!
Saks Fifth Avenue Wellery.
The Wellery also offers “non-invasive” body contouring treatments like CoolSculpting and oxygen boosting facials.  The highlight is something called Breathe, which is ten minutes sitting in a phone booth of salt air for $25 to detox your lungs and “improve skin and overall wellness.”  More wellness services are to come, (aren’t we sick of the word “wellness” yet?) including a Somadome pod for LED color therapy. Mark Metrick, President of Saks, feels “The wellness thing is big — we’re calling it the 'new luxury.'  It used to be about Fur and Leather.  But people now just want to feel better.”
More Wellery offerings ...
Imagine selling “wellness treatment alongside haute couture.”  As Metrick sees it — “Selling stuff in stores is not the answer, you have to build an emotional connection with the customer.  Where else can you take a fitness class and buy a Chanel handbag?”  Where indeed!  So far the wellness floor and Saks is still “empty” of shoppers or staff.  So much for boot camp retail.

Saks “Wellery” comes as their corporate parent is “under siege.”  Land and Buildings Investment Management took 4% stakes in Hudson’s Bay Company, which owns Saks.  Recently Land and Buildings suggested Hudson Bay either dump Saks or turn the upper floors of the Flagship store into “high-end residential condos.”  They better start deep breathing that salt air!
The truth is, no amount of gimmicks can save a department store in this online “click and send” culture.  So what is connecting the customer to the merchandise?  Lately there has been something called “social selling” — Trunk Shows.  It is a throwback to Avon, Tupperware and Mary Kay.

Everyone meets at a house, has some wine, and enjoys a little social interaction.  Then you get to try on clothes, bags and bracelets in the privacy of a luxurious living room amidst laughter, conversation, fun, and a LOT of spending.  According to the Direct Selling Association, more than 18 million people were involved in “direct selling” in the US in 2016, generating sales of about $34.5 billion, and growing.
Direct Selling Association's annual meeting even had an awards gala reception!
But this is far from the Avon/Tupperware model.  Direct sales have emerged along with the digital media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — you name it.  So now it’s not just your neighbor inviting you over to try on clothes, it’s a networked community.  So who needs stores?  Of course, you need independent “specialists” (they would be the “on call” sales girls) and a deluxe home/hostess to stage the whole set-up.  Then just call the caterer and florist, plug a Square credit card reader into your cell phone, and away you go!  It’s Showtime!
Apparently women who go to Trunk Shows can spend three times as much as they do online.  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.  It becomes a style workshop, “sisterhood” therapy session, and wine tasting all in one.  Get happy, connect, and spend.

Social selling also provides part time/freelance work to many people who want to work in fun, attractive settings.  Better than sitting behind a store counter. 
I have been aware of “pop-up” stores within department stores or in empty lofts for a long time.  But I never actually did any Trunk Shows.  They seemed too exclusive, merchandise too expensive, and the invited customers seemed too self-important.  It felt like a private club I wanted no membership in — let alone getting naked in front of “VIP” judgmental strangers.

Hicks Ambassador Owens in one of the No Hassle Tassel necklaces.
Then, six months ago, I saw some interesting India Hicks necklaces in a magazine. I called the number, and in 24 hours an India Hicks “Ambassador” called me back and insisted I get in touch with Kristin Owens, my Scottsdale Hicks “connection.”  I did, and in two days she received me in her luxurious Southwestern Hacienda to show me the entire Hicks “lifestyle.” 

Hicks is a famous socialite/stylist who grew up in England, a granddaughter of Earl Mountbatten and a cousin of the Royal Family, and has also lived in Paris and New York.  She fell in love with her husband, had 5 children, and lives part time on a remote island in the Bahamas.  She decided to merchandise her “lucky star” island life of a British beauty into a line of clothing and accessories.  

Hicks says; “I felt the time was right to provide a more meaningful shopping experience — somewhere women could get together and share their own stories — so I created a force of entrepreneurial trailblazers.  And I am excited to share my lifestyle brand directly in the heart of the home, defying the traditional shopping experience by selling my collection through a network of extraordinary women.”

So Kristin showed me living room tables adorned with necklaces, perfume, scarves and bags — all very alluring and somewhat pricey. Because Kristin opened her house up to me privately, there were no other customers. She was incredibly gracious and personable, and I ended up buying four No Hassle tassel necklaces (at $90 a pop) and a huge bottle of India’s English Rose perfume ($95) so I could at least smell like India, if not look or live like her.  It was a very minimal purchase, but to be honest I was not a Hicks gal. Though I admire her lifestyle and no doubt she will do wonderfully cross country with her “ambassadors'” dedication and her British Island life of “Indie Tokens,” “Heritage Scarves,” “Madly Deeply Duchess Totes,” and “Jet Set Backpacks.” 
Gracious Hicks Ambassador Kristin Owens in front of her trunk show dining table. provides gorgeous pictures of a glamorous life and beautiful dogs and children that we can all have a taste of at the drop of a charge card number in the private setting of your local “ambassador.”  As Hicks says in her collection description, “The game is on — introducing a strong, confident, no-nonsense collection which can dance between the rooftops of the city to the casinos of Nassau.”  Again, if you live that life ... What rooftops?  What casinos?  Fortunately, Hicks' team will create that fantasy for you,  Just come to the Trunk Show.
Hicks’ deluxe clutches.
Hicks' message on a key chain.
My other Trunk Show setting was Ali4Ibu — this was a real experience with a whole other set of values.  It starts with Susan Hull Walker of Charleston South Carolina.  Susan was a missionary in a former life, but now owns and operates ibu (Indonesian for “Women with Respect”). 

ibu Founder + Creative Director Susan Hull Walker.
Susan has been running an online organization featuring clothing and home décor done by women artisans in 34 underprivileged countries and she collaborates with women in 79 co-operatives “to fashion change.” is a success story for tribal fashion — Walker recently has designated her own ambassadors to curate and design these original creations from many poverty stricken countries.  “I feel I am a magical shop keeper.  I create these Souks (Trunk Shows) for women to experience women from other worlds and the message is all about connection and soul — not just spending.”

Walker got lucky signing on Ali MacGraw this past spring.  Lets face it, Ali’s own Boho ethnic chic style alone could sell cheap World Market style crap, let alone extraordinary handcrafted necklaces, bracelets, totes, shawls etc. from Morocco to Tanzania to Nigeria to Navajo USA.  Walker calls it her “Women Without Borders” network.  But it is Ali MacGraw who really got the IBU movement going this year with a series of Trunk Shows from Charleston to New York to Connecticut to Santa Fe.

Walker chooses the home hosts, ships the clothing and now installs the “celebrity ambassador” to get the “social message out.”  It takes a village to bring everything together, including the caterer, the racks, the accompaniment, and the support to pull it all off.  But believe me, it was Ali’s presence that sold it all, it was HER show. 
Ali MacGraw and Susan Hull Walker of Ali4Ibu exchanging style points of view.
Full disclosure: Ali is a personal friend, but believe me, I have shopped with her on the streets of California, New York and Santa Fe — no one knows the world of style and creativity and reciprocity better than Ali MacGraw.

She was adamant about why she signed on with IBU — “I wanted to give this group of women in these poverty stricken countries the support and respect, and hopefully bring medicinal help by doing these shows.  I want to celebrate their self-esteem as artisans.  Our only hope is to create a platform with which to support these women.  Every gesture counts.  This isn’t about getting ‘done up’ in tribal drag — I see it as an affirmation of the lives of these women creators.” 
The Ali4Ibu team:  Ali MacGraw, Leon Morrison, and Susan Hull Walker.
Ali with her legions of friends and fans.
And an affirmation of life for all the hundreds of women who showed up and bought the racks of tunics, earrings, shoes and shawls. 

Ali4Ibu sold out in every trunk show city (See What to Wear Where: Meeting Ali).  Ali tirelessly worked the rooms and took “selfies” with every woman who attended.  She taught them how to wrap the bracelets, tie the scarves, and drape the shawls. She showered her style on every shopper and everyone felt blessed to have bought (for a great cause) and to have met THE “IBU extraordinaire” that is Ali MacGraw.  It was more than a meet and greet — it became a religious style experience of soulful spending.  A merchandising “win/win.”
Ali4Ibu Tribal Day Dresses on display.
Shoppers perusing Ali4Ibu popular tunics and scarves.
Ali demonstrating how to wrap bracelets and shawls.
Cruising the tables of Ali4Ibu merchandise in Santa Fe.
Walker is totally indebted to MacGraw for the time, message, and all the amazing press she generated in the last five months. “Ali is a woman of tremendous dignity and respect — having given herself to a life of service and carrying always a most distinctive sense of style, while celebrating the handmade beauty in this world.”  (Walker’s next IBU Ambassador this Fall is another amazing stylist — Charlotte Moss).

Walker struck gold with Ali MacGraw — she is a true “ambassador.”  I personally think that after visiting Ali’s Trunk Shows and doing flea markets with her in her home town of Santa Fe — it is clear that Ali’s style is now as iconic as Georgia O’Keeffe.  It was great that many women left Santa Fe with some tribal togs and a piece of Ali. Better than an Autograph!
Santa Fe custom designer Ann Lawrence with Ali MacGraw discussing baubles, bangles and beads at the Santa Fe Flea Market.
Outdoor Trunk Show at the Santa Fe Flea Market.
Accessories, accessories, accessories.
The ultimate authentic Native American trunk show display in downtown Santa Fe.
Ali4Ibu, Hicks, and others are the tip of the “new retail” experience.  There are also social media “beauty influencers” — online personalities who review and demonstrate all types of beauty products and are making a huge impact on department store beauty counters — even Sephora.

While it is true that these are not as personal as a Trunk Show set-up, seeing a YouTube video on your computer in your living room or cell phone in your own time “zone” is as powerful. 
I am not into makeup, but was told to pull up Star has over 500 million views on YouTube and millions of serious followers on Instagram. Jeffree Star has become a major selling force for certain cosmetic brands like Gucci and Lauder, but the luxury brands find him hard to reckon with. Many of the high-end brands don’t want to deal with him simply because of his Drag Race appeal, tattoos and vulgarity-laden and brutally honest reviews.  To me he is remarkable. Who better than a drag queen to tell you the lowdown on how a foundation covers or eye shadow actually wears!
"Major fashion force," Jeffree Star.
40 years ago Warhol drag queen Jackie Curtis made me up and it was the best makeup application and lesson I have ever experienced. Star will have an affect on cosmetic sales in brick and mortar and everywhere else. Currently he is more important than name brand advertising.  As Conor Begley, co-founder of Tribe Dynamics Sales, says: “Star is talking not just about beauty brands, but fashion apparel and accessories.  He is shaping the perceived message.  Luxury houses don’t have to make him the face of their brand — but this is a new wave of beauty influences that you have to manage and work with ... they have to think of him as major P.R., if not a major fashion force.” 

Star is in your face about your face — you will be binge watching his tutorials for at least a day!  He is his own trunk show ... and then some!