Working for the Toronto-based brand Comrags years ago, I was intrigued by how designers Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish showcased their designs.
This was at a time before social media and the brand didn’t even have an e-commerce website yet. Aside from the occasional runway show, they focused on customer shopping events, where devotees and newer fans could come in after store hours, watch a brief “show” featuring the new pieces, and then shop the goods before the general public had a chance. There was also outreach via postcards that featured a snapshot from the seasonal look book along with a hand-written note from staff about which new pieces would work well with a customer’s existing Comrags garments.
This approach to customer engagement was charming and unique, and showcased the brand’s personal ethos in an authentic way. But that was then, and even though the postcards are still sent and the customer nights remain well-attended evenings, retailers and labels such as Comrags are finding themselves in the position of having to tweak the way they push their styles and perspective via the black-mirrored and often impersonal background of social media.
How does a retailer stay engaged digitally while offering the connection cultivated via a years-long relationship with your favourite sales associate or personal shopper? You turn your staff into video hosts on your Instagram stories.
On its Instagram channel, two of Comrags sales associates, Warren Steven Scott and Alexis Venerus, often film each other in newly arrived stock. They’ll walk and twirl on the sidewalk in front of the boutique, modelling polka-dot jumpers and printed aprons in a way that tips off viewers about how to wear pieces.
“It gives life to the photographs,” designer Cornish says. The posts offer an in-real-life counterpoint to more polished look book and campaign images photographed in studio on a model. “We shoot the collection, and you have to see the clothes. [The videos] are able to fill in the stories and the details.”
The decision to let Scott and Venerus play dress-up for the camera is paying off. “I think it’s brought new customers in,” Cornish says. “It’s definitely brought younger customers in who maybe had an idea about what we were.”
She adds that the videos are particularly helpful in keeping fans outside of Toronto interested in what the brand is doing. “We’ve got lots of customers that are out of town that buy online, and lots of them will actually say they bought after seeing, as they refer to it, the ‘Friday night video.’ They’ll see something and make a purchase based directly on that.”
In the ever-fractured world of retail, these video posts are flourishing as it becomes easier to purchase product via platforms such as Instagram, which recently announced plans to implement a check-out button that would lead consumers directly to a purchasing page instead of being rerouted to a brand’s website. This step is important to both the app and the brands that use it; according to a story from The Verge last fall, there were more than 25 million businesses using Instagram to flaunt their wares last year, and Facebook has reported that 53 per cent of people in Canada said they have made a purchase either in the moment or after seeing a product or service on Instagram.
Yet, it’s not only the revenue potential that’s convincing retailers to adopt a more animated social identity. There’s also an opportunity to mimic an experience that used to be available only to those who walked into a store and forged a relationship with its staff.
Marlo Sutton, a personal shopper and stylist at Holt Renfrew, uses her personal social feed to highlight how the latest pieces from Dries Van Noten, Saint Laurent and Khaite can be worn for work and for play. Over on the feed for Victoire, which has stores in Ottawa and Toronto, you can catch snaps of staffers modelling new wares. One such post showcases how versatile a jumpsuit style from Canadian brand Dagg and Stacey is, as the three wearers have different body types and personal styles.
Britt Rawlinson, founder of the consignment boutique VSP, says her shop’s content output has evolved to put more focus on its staff. VSP’s e-commerce and content manager, assistant manager and VIP concierge have all appeared in self-produced vignettes to announce sales, endorse in-store events and even highlight how their consignment pieces fit into the current trend landscape. Although the spots aren’t super slick like a television commercial, they do retain a level of savvy and sophistication thanks to the staff’s sharp dressing and self-possession, and the videos’ thoughtful set-ups and themes.
Whether their young staff realizes it or not, their approach is similar to the way TV home-shopping networks and morning lifestyle shows such as CityLine or Breakfast Television have traditionally contextualized fashion and shopping for their audiences with shoppable segments.
“A big question [for us] for online and social media was, how are we portraying the store experience and getting that message across and making it a bit more personal?" Rawlinson says. "What we enjoy, and what we pride ourselves on, is customer engagement.”
Rawlinson notes a key aspect of whether this tactic succeeds or not is based on how approachable and interesting the video stars are. “It’s been a natural fit to introduce our staff,” she says. “We love to bring people on [to the team] who have a ton of different influences and unique personal hobbies and tastes.”
It’s this eclectic mix of points-of-view that draws me in when I’m watching these stores’ videos – discovering how someone would wear a piece, especially one that might not have jumped out at me in a photograph, satisfies my passion as a fashion lover who sees getting dressed as an expression of creativity and candour. Tuning in gives followers a glimpse of what’s possible with a wardrobe when a little personality comes into the social-media frame.