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Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Luxury Marketing Can Teach Us - An Interview with Chris Ramey

Greg Furman and Chris Ramey originally uploaded by cpramey.
Have you considered how much luxury marketing can teach us?

Christopher P. Ramey, Chairman of
The Florida Luxury Marketing Council, shares with us some of his wisdom. He has just expanded the Florida Luxury Marketing Council -- from The Luxury Marketing Council of Miami, The Luxury Marketing Council of Fort Lauderdale and The Latin Luxury Marketing Council --to Sarasota. Chris now owns four of the 17 Luxury Marketing Council chapters less than a year after launching the Council! Impressive.

I got to know Chris during his
CCA Global days, when he was President of The International Design Guild [check out their Dabbieri Blog]. He has been focused on the Luxury market for the past fifteen years and contributes to FCW. Most recently, Kim Gavin interviewed him for an article titled "Luxury shoppers defy definition, demand attention" in the 11/12/07 issue as did Juan Fernandez for EL Espectador Colombia [article titled "El lujo incluyente" en espanol].

At the upcoming Surfaces 2008, Chris will be presenting "Ten Essential Keys to Entering the Luxury Market" on Friday, February 1st, 2008.

CB: Chris, how did you get started in the luxury market?
My first job after college was with Macy’s in their Executive Management Training Program. I still remember the call from the HR Director asking me which department I wanted to be assigned to. I was a couple months from graduating and - naturally - focused on money. So, I told her “jewelry” because I thought that was the most expensive product they sold. Unfortunately, it was a lease department. The next most expensive category was carpet, and that's where I decided to go.

After being an assistant buyer in Carpet and Rugs at Macy's, I accepted a position with Cabin Crafts Carpets as a territory manager. I started my own flooring store in 1984 with the intent to always remain the premium brand in my marketplace.

In the late 1990s, I started focusing completely on the luxury market. That's when I became a charter member of The Luxury Marketing Council of Atlanta. Back then International Design Guild had only 18 members. Today it’s grown to over 100 showrooms and is extraordinarily well run by Krista Eliason.

CB: Would you explain what the Luxury Marketing Council is?
The Luxury Marketing Council is a think tank and greenhouse for marketers focused on the affluent. “Council” may be a misnomer. We are a marketing organization that creates marketing collaborations, forums for best practices, and a sharing of information among organizations that don’t compete, but share the same customer. Your blog is an excellent example of our philosophy that information and knowledge are the most powerful products in the world.

Worldwide we have 800 august members. In Florida, we are now over 84 members including Ocean Reef Club, Samuel Getz Private Jewelers, Luxury Trips, Dolphin Stadium Private Club, Blue Star Jets, White Good & Company Advertising, Delano Hotel and The Shore Club, Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons Hotel, International Design Guild, Ringling College of Art and Design, Camper and Nicholson, Florida Designers Review, Bertram, SeaDream Yacht and it goes on.

I'd like to note that some of our members are based elsewhere. As you might assume, a very large percent of the affluent in the United States, Latin America and Europe are connected in some way to Florida. And the product we provide is portable.

CB: What about your expansion to Sarasota, Florida?
Sarasota is a dynamic community and a cultural hub. Ringling College of Art and Design, based in Sarasota, has been a great supporter of the council. President of the college, Dr. Larry Thompson has become a good friend and sits on my Luxury Collective Board. He and the college are familiar with the New York chapter and, when I started the Florida chapter, they called and immediately wanted to join. While planning the Sarasota International Design Summit, Larry asked if I would present on international marketing. Through that opportunity The Ritz-Carlton and Ringling College sponsored our launch during the same week.

Frankly, Sarasota also provides connections in Tampa and Naples. This will give us the traction to open in those markets in early 2008.

CB: What excites you about the luxury market?
I was raised in Bethel Park, PA, a middle class suburb in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. My father's job as corporate chief pilot of a major corporation exposed me to the affluent at an early age. His work was our vacation and his CEO treated us like family. From our annual trips to the Masters, US Open, Mexico or the Caribbean, I witnessed firsthand how luxury marketers created their brands and established them in the mind of their consumers.

In college, I majored in Advertising when the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Jack Trout and Al Ries was released. Between Rosser Reeves and Trout & Ries I was hooked. It made sense to me that if you’re going to be selling something to someone you ought to pick someone who has money and that you needed to explore the proper slot in which to position your brands.

Luxury is exciting because innovation is an essential element, and it trickles downstream. Today's luxuries will mainstream tomorrow.

To a large degree, the basic premise for luxury marketers remains “how do we create a message that is indelibly printed in the customer’s mind?” The difference is in the execution.

CB: Given your experience in both flooring and the luxury markets, how might you reinvent the carpet market?
Christine, we could spend days on this subject. The flooring business is product focused whereas it should be customer centric. Most stores are more reflective of a larger company’s mandatory displays rather than serving the customer with a total experience that will illuminate the value and importance of that specific retailer. Perhaps we change that first.

Once you're focused on the customer rather than your competition you'll naturally want to start paying attention to your customer's experience with other service and product providers. Watch what's happening at the Mandarin Oriental or Bergdorf Goodman, and then explore ways to interpret it for your own business.

Changing the buying experience requires vision, leadership and the guts to make the changes now rather than later.

Like other professional luxury merchants, flooring retailers should be narrowly focused and deep. Stand for one thing and do it extraordinarily well. Consider this: the most highly trafficked "stores" are restaurants. Do you remember Morrison's Restaurants? The cafeterias that served everything? Well, they're gone, but they morphed into Ruby Tuesday. Consumers don't think they're getting a quality product if the retailer has no focus or point of view. What makes us think that flooring stores can miraculously serve everyone well? Most flooring retailers are still trying to emulate Morrison's.

Consider the emergence of hardwood floor stores. They do one thing well - hardwood - and customers believe it. Customers want to know what they're walking into before they spend their precious time. The affluent often have more money than time, and you will never get them back if you waste their time.

CB: What about flooring display systems?
I’ve taken some heat for suggesting that retailers dump their wing-racks. We now live in a time of abundance. Your goal as a merchant should be to edit out anything that isn't consistent with your store's message and positioning. Research today tells us that customers are stymied by a huge selection. Wing racks exacerbate this situation.

There are a couple exceptions to this rule. One is Karastan Gallery. Their brand has equity and keeping it intact makes sense. But, I can’t think of many more. Never forget that you store brand is the most important brand you have.

I was in a major flooring retailer recently. They had supplier racks from virtually every decorative supplier I could think of. It looked silly. They would have done themselves and their customer a favor if they had taken all their 27 x 18s or 13 ½ x 18s and sorted them by color in their own display system.

· It would have been more dramatic
· It will be easier for the customer to shop
· It’s easier for the salesperson to sell.

Of course, the reason they don’t do that is because they can’t manage the samples (or perhaps the loss of them). The store is more concerned about serving themselves or their reps than they are serving their customer. A sad situation and a long ways from reinventing the buying experience. Imagine an affluent client, desiring a blue wilton, walking into this store. She’s required to look at a couple thousand samples in many different sizes and several different displays or racks to try and find her one color. Christine, you’ve done a great job writing and speaking about the customer experience. Does anyone else see the issue here?

CB: Is anyone doing it right?
There are some flooring companies who get it. Lucia Schito from Bisazza understands that a retail environment must be consistent with their brand positioning. Lucia and Bisazza have created a stunning environment for a limited number of retailers. It elevates the category, and it makes you want to buy Bisazza regardless of the price. That's customer centric luxury marketing that serves the entire channel.

Chris, many thanks for this peak into your world and for sharing perspective on how to improve the carpet/flooring retail experience.

Readers, what is your take on luxury marketing? What about Chris' comments relating to the flooring experience? Do you agree or disagree?

By the way, if you don't take luxury marketing seriously, consider reading
Trendwatching's "8 trends to capitalize on in 2008" and note how many relate to luxury....

And consider Ad Age's article titled "New Year Not Looking Happy for Magazine Publishers In This Iffy Economy, Only Titles That Rely on Luxury Advertisers Seem Optimistic by Nat Ives from 12/03/2007.

Note: the El Espectador Colombia article for which Chris was interviewed [see link above] is part of a full special section titled "Iconos Del Lujo" from 12/9 to 15/2007.

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Reminder: Please, no self-promotional or SPAM comments. Don't bother if you're simply trying to build inauthentic link juice. Finally, don't be anonymous: it's too hard to have a conversation. Thanks, CB

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