Retail store design best practices preach 100% visibility of inventory within stores. This store has a giant orb in the centre that could hide people and reduces visibility.
Retail store design best practices suggest designing your store based on customer flow. This store has an amphitheatre of screens and various curated elements positioned in the expansive sculptural interior, which urges fluidity without following any pattern or flow.
Retail store design best practices coerce the need to display products with an objective to maximise upsell and optimise revenue-per-square-feet. This store wasn’t designed by calculating monetary returns at all. In fact, the giant white sphere that occupies one-third of the entire store space adds no direct commercial value.
So is this a story of how not to design a retail outlet? Actually, it’s quite the opposite. It is a story about breaking boundaries, going against the flow of what’s accepted as conventional, and creating a larger-than-life aspirational experience that circumvents any rigid rules, paradigms, and norms to surpass expectations.
Oman-based perfume retailer Amouage, also known as the Gift of Kings, recently unveiled its flagship store in Mall of Oman, bringing its global store count to 12. The curated space features an artistic depiction of a solar eclipse in the Omani desert and is finished with luxe materials including dark oak, waxed concrete, polished black stainless steel, brass and gold leaf touches, together in a refined 21st century brutalist patchwork.
“It is quite a big and ambitious vision to completely reinvent the way people have been shopping for fragrances for decades,” said Renaud Salmon, Chief Experience Officer at Amouage.
But reinventing retail with a big and ambitious vision should come as no surprise from a brand that started off by treading on this very path 40 years ago. What started off as an idea by the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the longest serving beloved leader of the Arab world, to create a gift that contains an essence of Oman to be presented to the important guests of the country has today evolved to become a premium global luxury brand that has put the Sultanate on the world map. Just within a year of its launch, Amouage created a ripple as ‘Oman’s Perfume with a Gold Price Tag’ as headlined by a New York Times article of 1985. You see, all these VIPs would carry their Amouage gifts back to their home countries and use it there, becoming the most powerful marketing tool (read: word of mouth) for the brand.
Since then, Amouage has grown to become a global brand, a retailer, and a dominant luxury perfumer with boutiques in Oman, UAE, Malaysia, and Italy. “The idea was always to share a little piece of Oman to the world, so the vision was always global. Since the very beginning, it was an equilibrium between local and international,” he said.
With a range of 50+ fragrances available in around 1000 department stores across 80 countries and plans of expanding into the US in partnership with the top five department stores including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, it’s fair to say that Amouage continues to live up to its global vision. However, it wasn’t enough for Amouage to just be another brand amidst a pool of global competitors in a department store and believed it was paramount to foray into retail.
“It was important for Amouage to have a retail presence to build a connection with its customers. Customers can truly understand more about the brand and the products they are acquiring once they get in touch with the staff. Our factories are also boutiques, where we are blending the boundaries between production and retail,” he added. “It is important for customers to learn about the stories and the process of creation from our people. This wish to connect with people and to have an anchorage in different key places in the world to materialise the global footprint of Amouage is how the retail journey started.”
However, the last two years brought about its own set of challenges, setbacks, and opportunities for reimagination of the brand. “We did notice a drop in traffic and sales, but also noticed a strong need to come back with some changes,” he said.
There were three key changes that Renaud thought was paramount to consider in order to up their retail game to cater to Amouage’s customers, who also went through some mindset shifts as a result of the pandemic. First, was the new-found acknowledgment of the importance of space, openness, and transparency within its physical stores. Second, was the realisation of how different consumers want to be attended to differently and creating avenues for it. “Some shoppers would like to just come in, buy something, and leave. Some other clients would like to sit down and have long chats in the boutique. In a way, some people come to a perfume boutique the way some go to a psychologist, because it is about exchanging deep emotions and our boutiques need to have the capacity to be welcoming to all kinds of customers,” he explained. And third, was the accelerated amalgamation of the physical and digital worlds.
In the last two years, a massive transformation that the retail landscape has witnessed was the transition to e-commerce. However, you would imagine that this might be particularly exigent for a perfume retailer considering one can’t quite smell online. So how would Amouage leverage from its e-commerce operations?
The numbers are testament to the fact that it did. Amouage’s total fragrance sales were up by over 15% during the last two quarters of 2020, while e-commerce revenues grew by a whopping 600%, increasing the House’s market share across all regions. Renaud explains why e-commerce can be a powerful tool even for perfumers with this quick experiment he attempted on me.
“Let me show you two perfume bottles – one blue and one yellow. Which one of these scents do you think is lemon-flavoured,” he asked. “The yellow one,” I responded immediately.
Despite not even taking a whiff, my brain supposedly made associations purely based on what I saw, which made me perceive the fragrance in the yellow bottle as lemon. “And this shows that the perception of fragrances is multisensory,” he exclaimed with a smile.
Amouage used this multisensory perception of fragrances in order to engage with its online customer base using visuals, videos, and creating custom music that resonates with a fragrance allowing the brain to translate that into a smell.
Moreover, customers today have embraced e-commerce and are more comfortable buying perfumes online without trying it, especially from a brand they trust. “Today you have a lot of people buying expensive fragrances without even smelling them because the behaviour is more accepted today. Also, today there is a solid secondary market of perfumes, which means if you don’t like the product, you can sell it. And third, people trust Amouage, which goes back to the importance of creative direction, because people are assured that the style of the perfume is going to be coherent to that creative direction,” he explained.
However, for Amouage, it has never just been about blindly pushing products and hard-selling to their customers. They’ve always believed in nurturing its growing community by educating, informing, and entertaining their audience, which was appreciated even more during the pandemic. A lot of people started looking at perfumery as a hobby and taking an inclination towards understanding the art more intricately, and that is also where Amouage’s online presence could truly add value.
“A few years ago, you could be successful as a luxury house selling dreams. But if you are Amouage and your main points of difference is quality, notoriety and craftsmanship, then you can’t sell the product anymore by just beautiful pictures. Today, people expect an authority with credibility, which is going to inject their expertise into the community. We need to fill the community with qualitative content and be patrons of the industry,” he said. “During the pandemic, we were among the first to do live chats and masterclasses with perfumers. One of the best-selling products on our website are the sampler sets – a box that contains up to 12 different fragrances from Amouage, which a lot of people that got into perfumery as a hobby during the pandemic started ordering.”
While Renaud and his team were firm on the creative direction of the brand and were marching steadfast to implement the vision, the operations team was dealing with the back-end challenges posed by the pandemic. For a brand that works with a palette of over 800 ingredients sourced from all over the world, the supply chain conundrums that the world faced didn’t spare Amouage either. Plus, Oman’s complex geographic location didn’t help their case, considering most of the production happened within the Sultanate.
“We tried to be pragmatic about it. Most of the challenges were related to time – things were taking longer.” But time itself, as Renaud says, is a key ingredient of Amouage’s products, which his clients and customers understand as well. “With higher quality products, our clients understood that it could take longer as we weren’t compromising on quality and ingredients,” he added.
Time, is actually something that Amouage has mastered to play with beautifully. The brand isn’t part of today’s mad rat-race of being the quickest to deliver or fastest luxury provider. Amouage, especially with its new store, tries to promote the idea of taking your time to immerse yourself in the Amouage experience in your own leisurely pace.
“It’s deeply philosophical. The big challenge in the luxury world is to get through the noise. Most brands would imagine that the way to get through the noise is to scream louder or more frequently,” he said. In a retail world filled with large boards, flashy colours, and loud messaging, the giant white orb in the new boutique, in a way, cuts through all the noise and stands out as a symbol of stillness and tranquility, gently impelling you to just pause and take it all in.
“This boutique is a commitment by Amouage to push the boundaries of retail by not falling in to the trap of becoming calculated or going by the book. We go against the flow because this boutique makes no sense from a commercial point of view. And it’s okay,” he said.
“It needed to be a window to the world and should resonate with more than its target audience. We needed to be more demanding and have a strong artistic point of view. For us, it is about translating the unique experiences we get in Oman (like a solar eclipse here) to a retail experience. It is this fragile equilibrium between the intricate stones that are handcrafted, to this gigantic, monumental sphere in the middle that has no reason to exist in a retail environment. Most retailers will advice against it but we know it has a strong appeal and gravitas that makes it feel like an experience,” he quips.
Renaud and his entire team refuse to play by any retail best practices book and believe in creating magic using their own creativity and artistic instincts. And the fact that the House of Amouage grew at an exceptional rate of 50% as against 2020, and 2021 results exceeded pre-Covid levels by over 21% proves that maybe it is time for other retailers to get rid of those age-old guidebooks as well. Customers are bored of traditional retail and want to be amazed, entertained, and educated and it is up to retailers to give them what they want and be where they want them to be.
“Now if your people and community are in the metaverse then you need to be there. We have the same debate about TikTok. Will the platform be able to help us create qualitative, informative content or is it just about dancing with perfume bottles?” he asks rhetorically.
However, what truly excites Renaud among all the emerging technology hype is one that is capable of diffusing scents online. Although in the preliminary stages, digital olfaction is very much on its way to revolutionise the perfumery industry, especially with the emergence of two branches: one focused on the digital detection and analysis of different odors, and the other on the digital transmission and re-creation of smells.
While Renaud awaits personalisation and digital olfaction technologies to be perfected, there is a lot that is going to keep him occupied for the foreseeable. “We are investing in our equipment and manufacturing capabilities and hiring more people as a lot of things are done by hand. We are going to have a larger presence around the world. But that doesn’t mean simply adding many more points of sale, but replacing some points of sales with better ones. We want to create the most inspiring and innovative perfume boutiques around the world and that’s quite a bold vision,” he concluded.
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