Selling Luxury Items Online

Knowledge and a Personal Touch Move Big-Ticket Items.
No matter what you're selling online, your customers need to feel confident about your products. But if you're selling high-end items, like antiques or jewelry, there are other things to consider when creating and designing a successful e-commerce Web site.

You need to develop a personal relationship with your customer, convey your expertise in the area, make it easy for customers to find what they're looking for and make them feel secure with the transaction.

After all, if you want a customer to fork over $500 for a bottle of wine, for instance, it's important that they know what they're paying for and are certain that the people selling it know what they're doing.

Make New Friends, Keep The Old
K & L Wine Merchants sells wines from around the world, from $12 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc to $900 bottles of Port. The site is packed with information for customers, including top ten lists, newsletters, a wine club, a wine blog, and e-mail alerts, all designed to let the staff share its extensive knowledge and experience in the wine field.

"People come to us for information," said to Keith Wollenberg, a wine buyer at K&L. "They rely on us. We are experts, and we need to project that, without being too burdensome." K&L keeps the site as simple as possible, he said, giving customers a quick sense of what they have, and also allowing them to dig deeper if they're interested in a particular aspect of wine buying.

A simple Web site, knowledgeable staff and a personal touch are also the keystones of the Newel Web site, according to owner Lewis Baer. Newel, a bricks-and-mortar antiques store that opened in New York in 1939, has been online since 1998. The site is being completely redesigned to allow customers to see the store's extensive 10,000-item inventory within just a few clicks, according to Baer. "We did an analysis of the site and our customers want a fresh look and simple functionality," Baer said.

Luxury Items Selling Well as Market Matures
Newel was one of the first antiques stores to go online, he said, and its Web sales are growing every year. He estimates that sales from the Web will comprise 30 percent of his total sales this year, reflecting an industry-wide trend. Overall, online sales of luxury goods will grow to an estimated $4 billion this year, up from $3.4 billion last year, according to the State of Retailing Online report, conducted by Forrester Research.

Newel's customers tend to be sophisticated and knowledgeable about antiques, so they want to be able to browse the offerings with just a few clicks. The redesign will let customers search by style, category and sub-style (such as French, Empire, and seating, for example), so they can really hone in on what items that may suit their taste.

Because of the nature of what they're selling, Baer likes to establish a personal relationship with each customer. "This is not like buying a television," he said. "They are buying a unique item and I encourage them to call us so we can talk more about the item they're interested in."

And when you're selling items for as much as $15,000, that personal touch is very reassuring to customers, Baer said. "We can give them more detail on the item, or we can talk about other items we have that they might be interested in."

Wollenberg at K&L Wine Merchants agrees that giving the customer guidance and as much information as possible is a key factor in setting up a long-term relationship. "That connection with the customer is critical for higher-end sales," said Wollenberg.

Another high-tech way to build that customer relationship is to include a tool like Volusion Live Chat, an application that gives customers instant access to the experts at your site. Volusion recently announced a free version of its application; you can read the ECommerce-Guide report here.

Tell Me About It
Customers also like to see feedback about a seller or merchant, according to Lynne Danon, a lawyer from San Francisco who has bought jewelry, appliances and even a car online."I don't expect perfection in the ratings, but I look to see whether the seller cares enough to address the comments," she said.

As far as security, Baer does not take credit card numbers via the Web. He asks customers to call, or oftentimes he's dealing with designers who need to pay by check. K&L uses a secure server and robust firewall software, and hasn't had an issue with security. Danon pays with her credit card or with PayPal and she says she feels adequately protected. Sites that offer bonded transactions and other security options, such as BuySafe and VeriSign, add another level of comfort to customers about to plunk down $4,000 for a French Empire dining set.

Like any relationship, forging a sense of community at your site will take time and constant nurturing, but it pays off in loyalty. Danon said that once she has established a relationship with a seller, she sticks to that site for her purchases. "Once I'm satisfied," she says, "I don't look anywhere else."

Valle Dwight is a regular contributor to

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