Retail Chatter #10

What does the luxury experience in the Caribbean feel like for today's consumer?

As a luxury leader, my mission of finding new ways to engage the customer and provide great experiences is always top of mind. This time I found myself trying to find it in the Caribbean.

On a recent trip to Barbados, I got to experience first hand what luxury service feels like on this island. Most countries offer VIP services upon arrival, I was curious to see if this was true for Barbados. The minute I touched down at the gate, I was ushered off the plane by a greeter. She escorted me to a waiting area, and navigated through customs and the retrieval of my luggage.

Every aspect of this experience was great - from the timing of getting off the plane to conversing with her about the fashion industry. During our conversation, it was evident that she did her research that this industry is my trade. Her common threads were quite impressive.

I was offered freshly cut coconut water. And, boy, did I enjoy drinking it while sitting in the comfort of the outdoor space at the airport people watching and taking in the tropical Island breeze. No doubt this was strategically done in order to coordinate the timing of the driver's curbside arrival without missing a beat...and they succeeded.

This experience didn't surprise me in the least; especially knowing that one of the main drivers of the economy in the Caribbean is the service industry, particularly tourism. As a matter of fact, it accounts for three quarters of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Barbados, with numbers of $349 Million spent in this area last year alone. Imagine how this year will end as the luxury real estate market is on an uptick.

This is evident in other Caribbean Islands. Tourism on the island of Antigua is the largest sector of this country's economy, employing about three-quarters of the work force. Antigua carries the torch in the hotel industry with resorts like Jumby Bay, which is one of six five-star hotels in the area. However, a lack of designer brands and luxury shopping is a missed opportunity, especially as it holds one of the Caribbean's highest GDP, at $23,000.

In Jamaica the service sector contributes to around 70% of GDP and tourism employs one out of every ten workers. While the Bahamas service sector has seen steady growth over the past decade, which contributed to the movement of people from fishing and farming villages, to commercial centers such as: New Providence Island, Grand Bahamas and Great Abaco, according to Euro monitor. This population shift has again proved that the island's economic dependence is on the service industry.

In addition, the competition in the luxury service market is becoming more intense between tourism-driven countries in the Caribbean and those with high-income household competing with other low-cost regional destinations like Jamaica, where investment in luxury tourism is increasingly growing steady.

As I continued my journey in Barbados to find great luxury service, I entered the beautiful indoor/outdoor center called Limegrove. Limegrove is home to many designer shops, such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors. I have been hearing about this center for the past few years, but, on this hot Monday in August, I was on a mission to discover exceptional service and luxury experiences for myself. I couldn't help but notice some of the shoppers carrying the latest Louis Vuitton non-logo handbag, Celine, or Hermes Birkin bags, but wearing Tory Burch flats or fancy sneakers on their feet.

Navigating from store to store, I discovered a common global retail issue: some sales associates are more friendly and engaging, while others carried on in conversation as though I was invisible. I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of Limegrove and watched him as he walked the corridors of this prestigious center. He stopped and said hello to everyone he encountered from employees to customers. His actions made me feel as if I was an invited guest who had entered his home.

The Limegrove Centre is also home to a boutique theater equipped with table service, allowing guests to order food, drink and champagne with one touch of a button. This type of luxury entertainment places Limegrove in the exceptional service category.

I was equally impressed with the experience at two local luxury hotels. From the time of arrival to departure, the Sandy Lane Hotel staff acted as though they had known me for decades. The warm, friendly, and seasoned staff at the Coral Reef Hotel also made for a grand experience.

Domestic and international investors boast about the service industry in the Caribbean, so let's not forget that these countries are all duty free, which also adds to the consumer shopping experience. Crystal Court shops in Nassau, Bahamas, has become a destination for luxury shoppers looking for timepieces from brands like Bulgari, Cartier, and Rolex, as well as, accessories from Ferragamo, Versace and Gucci.

The common thread for a retailer, hotelier or restaurant is great service and experience; therefore, in the Caribbean, the challenge is keeping the core values consistent with its international counterparts. This is especially important for luxury retail, as most international brands in the Caribbean are franchisees.

The best way for luxury brands to become successful in these sunny islands is having the right staff, the right product, and providing proper training to all employees so that they are able to think global but act local.