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Fashion sellers turn shopping into an event

October 18, 2009|Susan Carpenter

Navin Megji calls it "the thoroughfare" -- a stretch of San Vicente Boulevard that isn't a shopping district so much as a racetrack for commuters. Yet it's this strip of posh Brentwood where the 25-year-old boutique owner set up Feature -- a chic, fashion-forward enclave selling splatter-paint mini dresses and fitted boyfriend jackets from designers such as Alexander Wang, Vena Cava and Wayne.

"There's not a lot of walking traffic," said Megji, who, on a recent Monday in her 1,000-square-foot shop, was spending most of her time refolding lingerie and doing paperwork. "I've found the best way to get exposure is to do pop-up events or more of an extended trunk show."

The $200 she springs for Champagne and cocktails for each event "is a minimal cost for the amount of business it brings in," said Megji, who's done meet-and-greets and extended trunk shows with the creative directors of the Geren Ford and Wren lines and various cupcake and cocktail events to lure a customer base she describes as "Brentwood moms and their daughters" who "prefer more 'editorial' looks" and "don't shop at Nordstrom."

What's the payback? A doubling in sales, with the added bonus of building relationships with her customers, Megji said.

Megji isn't the only fashion retailer to use events to lure buyers. With retail sales down 9.1% so far this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, emporiums as varied as outlets that specialize in eyeglasses and department stores that sell, well, everything, are hiring DJs, screening movies, serving drinks, offering tattoos, showing art, throwing parties and rolling out the red carpet for shoppers.

"Retailers are really jumping in [to experiential marketing] because in this kind of economy, you've got to build that brand affinity if you're going to survive," said Stacey Ruth, CEO and chief creative officer of the Wow Factory event marketing firm in Atlanta. "With events, there's an interaction between the brand and the consumer that is not purchase-dependent. Retailers are able to capture information about their customers that's not invasive, and customers get a chance to try without having to buy and to get some perks and benefits for participating."

At Macy's Shoe Diva events, customers can shop 'til they drop while listening to a DJ, getting fake tattoos or having their fortunes read. At Bloomingdale's, which has been running its film-inspired "Lights, Camera, Fashion" campaign since August, fashionistas who've exhausted themselves pawing through piles of designer jeans can take a break in the stores' screening rooms, which have been running an endless loop of Bloomie's-financed indie flicks. If they spend at least $150, they also get a free pass to a screening of a soon-to-be-released movie, such as the Earhart bio-pic "Amelia."

At the Beverly Center Bloomingdale's, a third-floor alcove that is usually a customer service area for one-on-one-fashion consultations is currently a small movie theater, set up with a large flat-screen TV and rows of directors' chairs. Located between a display of French Connection embroidered dresses and Trina Turk geometric-print tops, the "theater" has seen the most use by bag-carrying husbands, according to one sales associate who works in the area.

Though Anne Keating, Bloomingdale's senior vice president of public relations and special events, said that the campaign has "definitely improved business," especially in ready to wear, accessories and cosmetics, she declined to say by how much, only that "we've had great sales results."

The Event Marketer Institute puts a finer point on the subject. It estimates that nearly half of participants at in-store events purchase sponsoring products.

At Matrushka -- a hip Silver Lake boutique that, in the last year, has hosted dance troupe performances, art openings and T-shirt nights that allow customers to choose the pieces of a shirt and have them sewn together on the spot -- business is up for the year, said owner-founder Laura Howe.

"It's not by much, just by enough that we're able to say that," said Howe, who's been holding events since she founded her boutique six years ago. The concept: "Customers should feel like they're a part of something as opposed to just straight commercialism. That energy really translates because people identify with feeling like there's something more going on."

And that, in turn, creates excitement.

"My whole initiative right now is keeping the customers curious and interested," said Jeff Rudes, co-founder and president of J Brand, an Anna Wintour favorite. In early September, the luxury jeans maker partnered with the Ron Herman store on Melrose Avenue to do a jeans "gallery" where the denim was mounted to the wall like art pieces, complete with explanatory placards. It was the best turnout for an event in the store's 37 years, according to Rudes.

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