You will have seen the work of Blue Mount, without even realising it — the designs of top luxury brands’ retail stores, such as Shanghai Tang, Christian Louboutin, Coach, Ted Baker, Lane Crawford, Value Retail, K11 and much more is down to them. The simple term to sum up these projects is ‘Visual Merchandising’, while the reality is that their pioneering development of the field in China has led to the more apt label of Integrated Experience Curator.
Combining original artwork from established artists, cultural relevancy which inspires, cutting-edge technology that engages and meeting the varying requirements of brands, malls and department stores has led Blue Mount to become the leader in the field, with a presence all over China, as well as in the UK.
We met with Blue Mount CEO, Luca Lam, for a chat about his experience.
The rise of e-commerce in China is well-known, and even non-luxury platforms are trying to grow their luxury off-shoots. How does physical retail deal with this in 2018?
If people think of retail simply as a method of transaction, then they’ll lose out. Those that win see the physical retail as branding, as the consumer understanding and trusting the product – let alone trying it! For lower-end retail, you can turn directly to e-commerce, while for real luxury, you want to see, touch and feel the product, and try it.
Even for the most discerning type of customer, you still want to enjoy the service quality and learn more about the story, the details of what you are investing in. Even if the customer becomes more comfortable with the brand and later turns to e-commerce as the check-out, the physical retail venue is delivering the branding and brand perception – the touch-point of interacting in-person and being treated as a valued individual, as a person, to ensure satisfaction and understanding of the brand.
How does Visual Merchandising compare from China to the West?
The funny thing is that what is happening with Visual Merchandising in China is even beyond that which is being taught in Universities in the UK, where they are still dealing with the product placement and the colour patterns and so on.
For example, what we worked on with K11 in Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang were about creating art that is culturally relevant, inspire and engages with the customers, and is fully interactive, both physically and digitally. We still use the term Visual Merchandising, while it becomes more as the branding design and customer engagement of a venue.
Luxury stores in London are still content with the formula that has been used for decades – displays, shop-windows and visual design. In China, everything is elevated to ‘what’s next’, and we look at the culture a lot more. This is something of a personal mission of mine – to use the power of luxury businesses in order to ensure that we are bringing the culture back to the destination; to represent and respect Chinese culture and the unique stories of each particular region and city.
How does the world of KOLs affect what you do?
We are seeing an increase in the budgets for Visual Merchandising in retail, from the brands themselves, as well as the high-end malls and department stores. Of course, KOLs are powerful, but using them alone for marketing purposes is too short-term.
Alongside the positive aspects of KOL collaboration, there needs to be meaning, identity and a story to relate in the first place. This is conveyed through the customer experience when they visit the store for themselves. This is again why, although we still use the label Visual Merchandising, in China the retail experience has become so much more. The competition is enormous, not only in terms of new luxury shopping malls but the brands themselves have multiple stores city-wide. This should also be the clearest indication that luxury brands believe in the retail experience, even for the most discerning clientele.
What examples of successful retail space visualisation in China have stood out to you?
One great example of high-end luxury meeting customer engagement is Reél Mall on Nanjing West Road. They have the brands that affluent shoppers want to see, while they also have a shop-within-shop unique design, and importantly, on the upper floors they have lifestyle meeting entertainment – artisanal coffee places as well as art and creative venues for shoppers to join in with.
K11 Guangzhou, just opened at the end of March 2018 is also a great example of “Museum-Retail” and a hybrid model of art x commerce. People were so intrigued with the mall and wanted to post their photos with the art installations, that it resulted in tremendous social media coverage — and sales! We were really happy to be part of this successful creation.
Referring again to culture, a project we worked with for Value Retail in Suzhou was something that we are very proud of. We worked with an artist on their representation of the crab – with Suzhou being a source of this food treasure of China, hairy crab. We didn’t want to manipulate or alter what the artist had done – and one has to be very sensitive when working with artists to not be too commercial or alter the meaning of their creation. But acting as a bridge between the art world and the commercal world, we affected the design and the representation of hairy crabs along the venue. This kind of visual effect really warms the hearts of local customers, as they can sense that their own history and culture has been respected and referred to, even in a venue filled with luxury western brands.
What would you say to those luxury brands that are still in the process of entering China?
For brands coming in, those who are not already globally famous names, then it is especially important to select the right mall – being positioned so that you are not immediately paying rent but rather a portion of revenue is going to the mall. Such malls are also highly incentivised to improve the customer experience and ensure traffic, while being in a physical space is vital for affluent Chinese shoppers to become familiar with your brand and identity.