Walking into an Ilori store is truly a feast for all the senses. The faint pleasant aroma of fig tickles the nostrils. Soft music plays in the background. The eyes fall on luxury sunwear beautifully and sleekly displayed much like fine jewelry or precious art work. However, unlike jewelry or art, the glasses are presented so that they are easily accessible, allowing them to be touched and tried on the face. Finally, to complete this sensory seduction, you are given a custom French chocolate that melts deliciously in the mouth.
Welcome to sunwear transformed into a true luxury experience… a special treasure, you might even say. Well, actually, you would say. The word “Ilori” comes from the West African language of Yoruba and means just that: special treasure. The brainchild of Luxottica Group, the Ilori concept was born out of a void in the retail market—sunwear as a true luxury item. “We saw growth in the premium accessory category,” says Michael Hansen, VP/general manager for Ilori. “In fact, the fastest growing segment of the category was luxury. But where were the sunglasses? They were way behind handbags and footwear, and other premium accessories. We saw this as a significant opportunity. The next explosion in premium accessories will be in the sun category.”
The store concept, which took 24 months to research and develop, is about catering to the true luxury consumer. This is not about Vera Wang for Kohl’s or Isaac Mizrahi for Target. Decidedly reversing on that sort of retail concept, is about the consumer who will pay $8,000 for a limited-edition handbag.
With that in mind, retail prices for sunwear sold in Ilori climb from an opening price point of about $200 up to the $4,000 to $5,000 range. “There is no end to what the luxury consumer will pay if they believe it’s special and true,” notes Hansen. “We outperformed our expectations. Our AUR (average unit retail) is $800. The actual transaction is even greater than that. We are pleasantly surprised.”
Product uniqueness is pivotal in the luxury category. “A segment of our assortment is dedicated to niche collections and up-and-coming designers,” says Hansen. “They may not be as well known to the typical consumer but they will appreciate the design elements whether it’s materials not typically used or just very avant garde styling. We also want to have very unique product such as a limited-edition Sama frame retailing for $2,100 or a more iconic brand such as Ray-Ban or Persol in colors not normally available in North America. We bring in best-selling styles from around world. Our customers travel frequently and internationally. They understand the cultures they see around the world.”
That unique product has helped Ilori succeed in getting their consumers to view sunglasses as a wardrobe item. “If a customer is preparing for a special event she is going to buy an appropriate wardrobe—matching shoes, jewelry and handbag,” explains Hansen. “But they stop there and never ever think of the sunglasses. We’re creating a paradigm shift. We treat sunglasses as a true premium fashion accessory. In all of our stores consumers are coming back, even those that have only been open two months. We have consumers coming back five to 10 times to buy different sunglasses. We are selling multiples at a greater frequency.”
The first Ilori store opened in New York’s fashionable Soho section on September 14, 2007. There are currently five others including Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and Ala Moana in Hawaii. Overall plans are to open up 100 to 150 in North America. “The design of the store is created out of culture and inspired from art,” says Hansen. “All the stores are different. The store in Rodeo Drive does not look like the store in Soho. Overall it’s about treating sunglasses as a work of art and putting them into an environment that produces that type of service.”
Service is indeed a key ingredient for Ilori and part of that is employing a staff— referred to as style consultants—who are not mere sales clerks. “We’re looking for multiple experiences from our employees,” says Hansen. “We have recruited people directly from the fashion houses. These are people who have a meaningful appreciation of as well as a depth and breadth of brand knowledge. They understand the expectations of the luxury consumer. We also hire those who come from the service industry, who have worked for a Four Seasons type of hotel, for example.”
The style consultants are given two weeks of training prior to the store opening and work with senior level employees. They are schooled not just in product knowledge but also brand heritage and trends. Consultants keep clientele books and send customers handwritten, personalized thank-you cards as well as notes about upcoming events or new products.
All of this brings sunwear to a level never before encountered by consumers. “The experience comes as quite a surprise,” notes Hansen. “They are not expecting to see sunglasses treated as a piece of art. They are not expecting to see associates dressed in a nice wardrobe, to be offered refreshments or to receive a customized chocolate from a French chocolatier. They are wowed by the service.” In the end the special treasure is not just the product, but the customers themselves.