Author Eric Abramian On The Future Of Retail
An Interview With David Liu
Find the literal rhythm of your brand. A soundtrack that is emblematic of your brand really goes a long way, both physically in store and digitally, particularly on social media with Instagram Reels or YouTube. It makes the consumer engage with the product on a deeper level, as long as it is not overpowering. For example, Chanel music director Michel Gaubert has captured the fashion world with his selection of tracks and sound mixing, keeping the brand fresh and relevant, and even creating opportunity for collaborations with artists.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Abramian.
Eric is a creative entrepreneur, fashion lawyer, advisor, and most recently author of #1 Amazon bestselling children’s book “Pierre the Umbrella in Paris”. With a background in business marketing from the American University of Paris and a J.D. from Loyola Law School, Eric works as a consultant to corporations and startups in the apparel and retail industries, advising on brand expansion geographically and helping negotiate various transactions pertaining to business and legal affairs. Eric has recently served as Interim Vice President of Store Development at Zadig & Voltaire, a French fashion and lifestyle brand on Deloitte’s top 100 Global Powers of Luxury Goods. Serving as co-chair of Beverly Hills Bar Association’s “The Global Fashion Lawyer” magazine, Eric has authored inspirational interviews with business personalities and articles on relevant legal issues faced by the fashion industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks for thinking of me, and it’s a pleasure to be interviewed for this series! I’ve had an inherent interest in fashion since I can remember. While most 10-year-old boys were obsessed with sports, my idea of an all-star game was Karl Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini-Fendi collaborating on a ready-to-wear collection and breaking ground as a powerful and creative team. (For the record, I was obsessed with Rafael Nadal and tried to emulate his energy and effortless style into my tennis tournaments as a kid!). At a certain age I became interested in the players behind the big luxury brands, the savvy business minds like Sidney Toledano, who developed the leather goods department of Dior, revolutionizing iconic handbags as we know them today with the creation of the “Lady Dior” bag, and putting the brand on the map as a long-term global power with a forward-thinking mantra.
By the time I was in college, studying business marketing at the American University of Paris, I met by coincidence a girl on the Metro, now one of my dear friends, who was running around town for work attending fittings for Paris fashion week. She invited me to join her backstage at the Dior show and the rest was history. It was the fashion industry’s way of inviting me into its arms (which it rarely does to others). Realizing toward the end of my undergraduate studies that I would excel in a career that combines creativity and business strategy, I sought out to become a fashion lawyer and was admitted to law school. During my first year, I landed an internship at Zadig & Voltaire, a brand whose values I truly believed in and knew represented the future of contemporary luxury. Fast forward to 2020 and at the age of 25, I was appointed interim Vice president of Store Development at Zadig, with big shoes to fill and an opportunity that advanced my career tenfold.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I don’t think it gets more interesting than starting your career at the peak of the worst global pandemic in 100 years! In early 2020 before everything shut down, I had met with a prominent LA based fashion lawyer at her office to discuss my career goals and learn more about her path to becoming a successful transactional attorney in the influencer world and beyond. Ironically, she told me that she had graduated from law school in 2008, during the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, but that this forced her to become creative and seek career opportunities in different areas than anticipated, which ultimately led her to where she is today. I remember thinking if she could do it in 2008, I had no reason to complain, until of course the world flipped upside down in March 2020 and every company in every market went on a hiring freeze indefinitely. Always having been good at maintaining my personal and professional contacts, I heard from my old boss at Zadig, who had recently been appointed CEO, and he offered that I fill in for another officer who was away for an extended period. Although it was an enormous role to take on straight out of law school, I was humbled that he and the team had enough trust in me to offer this position, and I dived right in.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I have recently written and published a children’s book, called Pierre the Umbrella in Paris, that is sort of an ode to my unconventional career path. It’s about an umbrella in Paris who is abandoned because his spring is broken. Having loved art his entire life, Pierre visits the famous landmarks of the “City of Light” in search of something more meaningful than his conventional role of protecting people from the rain, until the climax of the story where he saves a famous painting from getting destroyed and becomes a hero! It’s a story about art and courage, with references to iconic French fashion and culture for adults to treasure as well. During the launch of the e-book, Pierre ranked #1 new Amazon release in children’s Europe and Russia fiction and #17 in children’s bestselling Europe books. The hardcover version will be released this spring, with a book tour across different schools and bookstores to teach kids the value in being yourself and appreciating creativity. The idea my team and I have been working toward is establishing Pierre as a recognizable brand, creating further opportunities for endorsement, collaborations, and of course more books!
Another project that has naturally sprung out of my passion for apparel and retail startups is a series of speaking engagements with luxury brand management students across the globe. In the new age of digital networking, I have been sharing more about my lifestyle and interests on social media, especially on Instagram, and built a small but devoted following of both seasoned and aspiring fashion lawyers, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals. This is what led a number of students to reach out and ask if I would offer my industry knowledge for various projects and case studies, which of course I was happy to do. A few especially memorable conversations include discussing trends and predictions for a French brand entering the US market with its inception at Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as thoughts and predictions for a London based experience-driven luxury mini mall emulating its concept in foreign markets. These engagements are not only an excellent way to network with future industry leaders but also a way to help make an impact on the changing power of retail.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I completely agree that success is not unilateral. I also believe it’s something that we should always continue to seek. With new ventures come new successes, and sometimes failures are successes as well because it means we’ve had an opportunity to try new things and learn from them.
The people who believed in my drive from a young age are still people I keep in touch with regularly. I’ve been blessed to have so many mentors throughout my life and hope to emulate the values they have taught me to inspire other dreamers. One such mentor is Francis Kurkdjian, renowned French-Armenian perfumer and businessman, who is as down-to-earth and passionate about life as the scents he creates. Among his famous words are, “Dreams must be fulfilled to make room for new ones”, which is something that greatly resonates with me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes, but not nearly as much as I would like to do, and plan to do, in the coming years! Sometimes I forget I am still in my late twenties because the world is moving so fast these days.
During the final semester of my JD program at Loyola, at the height of the pandemic, I used my experience as a co-founder of Socialinks, an influencer marketing startup, to spearhead a charity campaign, which my team and I called “Fashion Feeds”, to raise money for local food banks in Los Angeles, New York, London, Milan, and Paris, partnering with organizations in each of these cities (the respective fashion capitals of the world with some of the highest levels of homelessness).
With the development of Pierre the Umbrella, I plan to give back to the world by working with organizations and schools to foster early childhood development and an appreciation for art and creativity, which we all need more of these days.
I would also love to continue speaking with and inspiring students with an interest in the business of fashion, and hopefully expand these intimate conversations to more formal university settings with the opportunity to impact more people.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Absolutely, and there are compelling reasons to shop online for most products these days — limited inventory in brick-and-mortar businesses, fewer sales associates, health concerns, and quite frankly geography, as the pandemic has allowed many people to relocate outside of major cities that traditionally have the big department stores and other flagships. But one concept that has driven large retailers to maintain a presence in person is the need for customer experience. Regardless of where we are in the world or how we consume, excellent service and human interaction is what encourages us to keep coming back for more. Since the pandemic, I think the key strategy has been to hone in on the right audience and create a unique experience around them that relates back to the values of the brand. I recently read a great book called “Customer Centricity” by Peter Fader which discusses why it is more effective in the long term to focus marketing and experience-driven efforts on the small but loyal audience who truly identifies with the brand rather than the majority of consumers who will help short term profits skyrocket but ultimately dilute the company’s image. In the past two years, I’ve seen, and helped implement, some creative ideas to adapt to the new future of retail, such as enhancing stronger e-commerce marketing efforts with in-store stylists, organizing exclusive events where a local artist hand paints on garments that cannot be acquired online, hosting talks about the apparel industry’s impact on the environment, short films in lieu of fashion shows, and the list goes on. The common thread is that retailers have been forced to go back to their roots and explain the meaning behind their products through a story because consumers have become savvier and place greater importance today on what their belongings say about them.
The supply chain crisis is another outgrowth of the pandemic. Can you share a few examples of what retailers are doing to pivot because of the bottlenecks caused by the supply chain crisis?
Seeing that more pandemics, or new variants of Covid-19, are likely to occur, finding creative ways to ease the difficulties of the supply chain crisis are necessary for all businesses moving forward. On a larger scale, I think establishing fulfillment centers by region are an important way to better meet the demands of customers. In an extremely competitive market today, efficiency is the standard for consumers, and it could really be detrimental to brands if their customers do not receive their online orders as quickly as possible. I frequently shop on UK based e-commerce site Farfetch, whose boutiques around the world store their products in Farfetch’s warehouses and hundreds of micro-warehouses in every major market, and I am always impressed by how quickly my packages arrive to my house in Los Angeles. Contrast this with a domestic brand who is shipping from east to west coast and delivery takes three times as long as those of e-commerce sites delivering curated pieces from around the world. That brand is going to lose out on a lot of future orders, especially in these uncertain times when consumers need products to be delivered more immediately.
Many businesses are also implementing technologies to better assist in tracking data and understanding the status of inventory during every step across the supply chain. Whereas manufacturers and retailers each did their respective jobs before and made the magic happen individually, this process is naturally more collaborative these days because retailers are reasonably more concerned about meeting the demands of their markets and require greater transparency throughout the process. On the non-human side, this has presented enormous opportunities for implementing AI technologies to assist in navigating any disruptions.
How do you think we should reimagine our supply chain to prevent this from happening again in the future?
I think it’s important for any company to dedicate a small team to understanding every step from the manufacturing process to getting the product in the consumer’s hands. There is a lot to keep track of from the procurement of raw materials to its final sale and the nuances and patterns that will provide more precision during the next round of production. Like I mentioned earlier, this was not as important a concern for brands until the pandemic put every company in a position to worry about whether they will be able to operate smoothly. Moving forward it’s extremely important to ensure proper staffing and monitoring with the help of any useful technologies.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
Yes, I believe retail stores and malls will definitely continue to exist, although I think they will shift how they operate. My prediction is that retail companies will continue to reduce their number of physical locations, maintaining a few flagship stores geographically with an experience-driven concept that allows them to invite both loyal and potential long-term customers to get a sense of the world they have created. Conversely, some companies that have really monetized on the expansion of brand image since the pandemic, i.e., Louis Vuitton and Dior, have been taking this customer experience to another level, investing heavily in luxury real estate and using each location to offer a new experience for a distinct sub-niche in which they see a strong market for the next decade.
To answer your question more directly, I would say there is no competition between online commerce platforms and physical retail spaces. The two are complementary, and retail companies today are in the early stages of trying to find the right balance. Without something physical that people can see, touch, and aspire to visit and experience, the company will lose an important sense of belonging to the world; that’s why startups will experiment with stores-in-stores or pop-up shops because there needs to be an element of real-life tangibility. On the other hand, more established companies will opt for the experiential or concierge style presence in physical locations to complement their online efforts. A great example of this is Nordstrom Local, a group of service hubs scattered across different neighborhoods where you can pick up and return online orders, get express alterations, and connect with helpful Nordstrom representatives to make your retail needs a bit easier.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
A strong sense of target audience and a consistent goal or mantra is something that cannot be stressed enough. Of course, even with all of this, the timing must be right, otherwise the brand will not be impactful in the way it has the potential to be. Lululemon and Costco are great examples. Their mission statements are respectively “creating components for people to live longer, healthier, fun lives” and “continually providing members with quality goods and services at the lowest prices”. Almost any consumer who reads these two statements would be able to guess that they are written by Lululemon and Costco, which means these retailers are doing an excellent job practicing what they preach. With regard to timing, the pandemic has certainly enhanced the growth of these two brands because everyone has a need for athleisure and spends time at home eating, cooking, and refurbishing.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
The whole idea behind direct-to-consumer is that it is a one-stop transaction where in-person emotion is not influencing the consumer’s decision to purchase a product. Retail companies and e-commerce companies, especially in the industries that are centered on luxury fashion, accessories, and beauty can greatly benefit from connecting with consumers in creative ways that exceed the practicality of DTC, such as through the use of digital talent, participation in various events that enhance the brand’s values, and emphasis on the people behind the company that consumers are naturally inspired by. Consumers shop on e-commerce site Moda Operandi because they feel connected to co-founder Lauren Santo Domingo as an influencer, tastemaker, and speaker at fashion week, and there is a certain level of community that comes from having flagships in New York, London, and Hong Kong that young fashionistas inspired by “The LSD” can visit and indulge in. In fact, I think the best way to go a step beyond direct-to-consumer is to continue reminding your consumers that they are not just numbers and invite them to in-person events and collaborative pop ups, show a community around the brand, and demonstrate what it visibly stands for. Even brands that started exclusively as DTC are now making the smart transition to physical stores as well, like Amsterdam based haircare brand “Gisou” by Negin Mirsalehi, whose products are now at Sephora. In the age of social media, the direct-to-consumer model is not going anywhere, so finding the right balance in my opinion is key. For example, non-DTC retail and e-commerce companies can try producing their own direct-to-consumer lines, while direct-to-consumer companies can implement physical presence into their strategies.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
One: Identify a natural muse and establish your target audience around this person.
Identify one person who is naturally inclined to represent your brand, even without a paid endorsement, then appeal to the consumer who loves this person. For Zadig & Voltaire, founded on the idea of Parisian rock and roll inspired wardrobe essentials, it was a no-brainer to partner with Kate Moss, and as a result the customer who loves to express the same free-spiritedness is coming back for more every season. With Pierre the Umbrella, where the goal is to create a brand and community around a children’s book series about art and culture, the ideal muse for us is Kelly Rutherford, a chic American mom who appreciates French culture, and values literature, travel, fashion, and creativity. Creating a community around people who value Kelly and what she stands for is something that gives us the confidence to continue establishing Pierre as a brand.
Two: Find the literal rhythm of your brand.
A soundtrack that is emblematic of your brand really goes a long way, both physically in store and digitally, particularly on social media with Instagram Reels or YouTube. It makes the consumer engage with the product on a deeper level, as long as it is not overpowering. For example, Chanel music director Michel Gaubert has captured the fashion world with his selection of tracks and sound mixing, keeping the brand fresh and relevant, and even creating opportunity for collaborations with artists.
Three: Remember sales staff are brand ambassadors.
Whether your sales staff are assisting customers over the phone or in person, they are representing your brand in the most direct way possible. Beyond hospitability and professionalism, they need to have an air about them that is everything your brand represents coupled with the knowledge of the brand’s history and current projects. One time I was speaking with a sales rep at a luxury designer boutique about the brand’s history and she did not even know who the former creative director of the brand was, which may not matter to most consumers but undoubtedly has a negative effect on the company.
Four: Make it “Instagrammable”.
Many in-person boutiques and department stores are still missing the opportunity to create free buzz on social media by creating small “Instagrammable” displays that consumers will appreciate. Everyone who uses social media is constantly looking for new content to post, so really the brand and the consumer would be benefitting each other with this kind of exchange. It can be as simple or as intricate as possible. E-commerce sites can also take advantage of this concept by implementing technologies online that will inspire consumers to create new content, or if they’re opting for something more old-school they can send a personalized card with facts about the product or some other social media friendly wrapping. The point is to get creative to optimize this feeling of community and to share that with the world.
Five: Provide efficient one-on-one service.
As we waver in and out of capacity restrictions due to the pandemic, many brands have had to form lines outside their stores, and some have strategically chosen to keep this feature to provide better customer service, and possibly safeguard against those who visit and don’t make purchases. I think this concept works for some large retail companies, if very carefully executed, but others should still strive to give individual attention to customers both in store and online. As mentioned earlier, I think the concierge style service that Nordstrom Local provides is something that will become more widely used by other retailers in the next decade and create greater efficiency and a more memorable experience.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
That’s a great question. I would love to create a movement around Henri Matisse’s famous words, “Creativity takes courage”. It’s something that’s always resonated with me because I’ve felt I have to explain myself every time I’m doing something creative and not immediately or objectively practical. I think creative people always have, and always will have, a difficult time fitting into society, but if I could make them feel understood and create a community around global creatives spanning various industries, I think anyone who has felt misunderstood in this sense would feel a sense of hope and acceptance.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m always posting new projects and developments on social media, especially on Instagram @EricAbramian and @PierreTheUmbrella. I try to update my website, ericabramian.com, regularly as well. Send me a message or an email and let’s share ideas!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks so much for having me! I hope I was helpful in answering your questions.