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Although she offers online sessions, Toronto-based personal stylist and influencer Barbara Aleks says nothing beats in-person shopping. 'It’s much easier,' she says.Thomas Bollmann/The Globe and Mail

The terms “private shopping” and “personal shopper,” might conjure up a vision of a well-heeled socialite sitting in a plush salon drinking a flute of Veuve Clicquot as a stylist unveils racks of designer clothes. While that certainly still happens at high-end stores across Canada, private shopping has evolved and modernized and now encompass a range of experiences and services for a broader clientele.

Department stores

”It could be for a very elaborate shopping experience,” explains Natalie Penno, senior vice-president of retail at Holt Renfrew. “It can also be for a singular item you’re looking for.”

Most of the seven Holt Renfrew locations across Canada have four to five private shopping suites, averaging about 300 square feet. And four stores feature the Apartment, a shopping-suite concept ranging from 700 to 1,600 square feet. All are complimentary.

Holt Renfrew Ogilvy in Montreal is home to the largest Apartment, which boasts high moulded ceilings and luxurious contemporary furniture.

“The personal shopping suites were designed to create a more residential feel for customers – a welcoming and relaxed oasis experience,” Penno says.

While the suites are open to all, the Ogilvy store and three other locations also offer dedicated men’s private shopping spaces.

“If there’s a store you love, get to know a sales associate, be loyal to them,

Barbara Aleks, personal shopper

The spaces have been used in several memorable ways, says Penno, for example, a client who celebrated her birthday in a store with three family members. Her personal shopper booked the Apartment and decorated the space with balloons and flowers in the customer’s favourite colours. The shopper also collaborated with the store’s executive chef to design a menu of the client’s favourite dishes from her home country. The lunch was followed by a specialized trunk show for each family member.

Personal shopping can be arranged by calling or visiting a Holt Renfrew store, or through the online booking tool.

Saks Fifth Avenue offers private shopping through its Fifth Avenue Club at its downtown and Sherway Gardens locations in Toronto. The service’s consultants can prepare private dressing suites with items selected for customers. Appointments can be tailored to the client’s wishes – for example, outside of store hours or with lunch delivery. During the holidays, consultants also offer gift wrapping and shipping assistance. For more information, contact FAC@s5a.com.

Nordstrom Canada, with locations in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, offers its own approach to personal shopping. On the store’s website, customers can book complimentary one-hour in-store appointments or 30-minute virtual sessions with stylists. Appointments are also available to help with gift buying.

Most Holt Renfrew stores across the country feature luxurious suites for private shopping – 'a welcoming and relaxed oasis experience,' says Natalie Penno, senior vice-president of retail.Handout

The independents

Ssense Montréal, the five-storey brick-and-mortar flagship of the eponymous online high-fashion and luxury streetwear retailer, opened in Old Montreal in 2018. The brand (pronounced “essence”) was founded in 2003 by Syrian-Canadian brothers Rami, Firas and Bassel Atallah, and is now one of the world’s highest-valued luxury e-commerce operations.

Contrasting with its 19th-century façade, the store’s concrete interior is all hard lines with modular glass and stainless-steel display systems showcasing clothing and accessories as if they were art installations.

The store has featured collaborations with fashion heavy-hitters like Prada – and this past September, partnered with Pharrell Williams on an exhibition highlighting his skin care and clothing line, Humanrace, as well as items from his personal wardrobe.

Ssense Montréal is open to walk-ins, but shopping is primarily appointment-based. Clients can select items on the store’s website, and then book an appointment to try the items on.

According to its website, the retailer offers complimentary personal shopping by invitation only to its “most engaged clients,” and provides virtual appointments with stylists.

On the other side of the country, Vancouver’s Leisure Center is a lifestyle concept store offering men’s and women’s fashions from brands like Balenciaga and Vetements, along with books, art, homeware and beauty, and a café. Owners Mason Wu and MuYun Li opened the expansive gallerylike space – housed inside a 1930s deco building – in 2017.

On the lower level, there are two private VIP rooms, a children’s play area and a vinyl bar. Executive assistant Annie Tian says these spaces are often used by families and groups of friends. The private rooms are available to loyal customers at no charge but must be booked in advance.

Beyond personal shopping and styling, Tian says Leisure Center has also hosted private dinner parties, and offered services such as babysitting, dog-walking and wardrobe-organizing to its most loyal clients.

The influence of the pandemic

While private shopping offers an attractive retail model for customers seeking social distancing, the pandemic has altered luxury patterns in other ways.

Global management-consulting firm Bain & Company reported a 50-per-cent jump in global luxury online sales from 2019 to 2020, and a further 27-per-cent increase from 2020 to 2021.

Digital innovations have allowed stores to offer personalized services via their websites. Janice Rudkowski, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management in Toronto, highlights the increased sophistication of online point-of-sale systems, such as those offered by Montreal’s Lightspeed, which enable retailers to provide appointment shopping and other services through their websites.

”The retailer can decide how to fulfill that appointment,” explains Rudkowski.”It could mean the consumer is in a Zoom session and an associate is in the store showing them different looks or the shopper has the opportunity to go to the store and not be around a lot of people.”

High-end fashion and accessories at Ssence Montréal are showcased like art installations.Handout

The personal shopper

Barbara Aleks, a Toronto-based personal stylist and influencer with 578, 000 TikTok followers and a global clientele, is again offering in-person shopping after focusing on online sessions for a year and a half during lockdowns. Aleks says nothing beats in-person shopping for efficiency.

”It’s much easier,” she says. “My clients will stick with their regular brands for online because they know their sizing, but anything beyond that is frustrating because you order all the stuff and it doesn’t fit, then you need another size, and it’s a pain.”

Clients can book time with Aleks through her website. Skype or Zoom sessions start at $495, while a package that includes a day at the customer’s home going through their wardrobe and a day of shopping is $1,395.

For high-end clients, Aleks relies on relationships with sales associates at upscale stores – often texting them before heading to a shop to see if they have what she’s looking for.

She recommends anyone looking for premium service to do the same. “If there’s a store you love, get to know a sales associate, be loyal to them, text them ahead of time. They’ll get to know what you like, maybe give you a head’s-up on upcoming sales and can pull stuff for you.”

The future

Rudkowski acknowledges the enduring allure of in-person shopping for luxury goods – clients want to be able to touch and examine the craftsmanship before making the investment.

Retail experts predict the future of luxury shopping will likely be a hybrid in which customers may do initial research online with a store stylist, followed up by an in-store visit.

“It’s a rethinking of the role of a physical store – is there a bigger role it can play in having a different type of connection with customers that complements online?” says Rudkowski. “For organizations looking at their brands from a holistic perspective, just digital doesn’t necessarily cut it.”

Some Holt Renfrew suites are dedicated to men’s private shopping.Handout