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hannah sung

If you're a reformed mall rat like me, you'll remember when shopping was a largely social activity. In recent years, however, it has evolved into an act we increasingly perform in a bubble, while listening to our iPods or braving the self-checkout or baking in the glow of our laptop screens. More and more, we are choosing to spend our money in digital isolation. But some nights, as I'm scrolling like a zombie through Amazon and Etsy, I wonder: Do consumers really crave more personal interaction?

Holt Renfrew, for one, is betting we do. Starting this month, the luxury department-store chain is rolling out a new team of "Holt's hosts" to create warmer, friendlier environments in its stores across Canada. For years now, Holt's has provided personal shoppers, concierge services and even a doorman at its Toronto flagship. The new "hosts" are intended to mingle with customers, moving around the stores to establish contact with them.

Alix Box, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at the chain, describes the new hires as "roving concierges." "Part of [their]magic is that they'll help customers navigate the store," she says. "If you come in looking for a special handbag, they'll ask whether you'd like to have a specific sales associate help and take you over there and introduce you. They help connect people and help build relationships."

They also conjure unlikely comparisons between Holt Renfrew and a slightly bigger retail giant: Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has famously employed its "greeters" since 1983. Clad in the company's signature blue-and-yellow smocks, their first-point-of-contact hello is an indelible part of that chain's experience.

As well it should be. For any retailer, says Maureen Atkinson of J.C. Williams Group, a Toronto retail consultancy, greeting customers is important. To be effective, however, the hosts should be adept at intuiting nuances, at reading the moods of individual shoppers. And here is where Holt Renfrew would be wise to tread lightly. "Some people really value a personal interaction and others find it intimidating," Atkinson says. "What customers always tell us is that they want to be recognized. It can be as simple as a nod of the head. A lot of customers aren't looking for anything more than that. Anything more can feel like it's not genuine."

In other words, it will be how Holt's hosts interact with clients - rather than how much they interact - that will determine their success or failure. Consumers of luxury brands are a relatively small group that can, as Atkinson points out, "shop anywhere in the world." And indeed they do, including on the World Wide Web. Over the past few years, the emergence of designer fashion e-tailers like Net-a-Porter and the popularity of cut-rate designer sites such as Gilt Groupe and Ideeli have taken some bites out of the market. The latter two offer flash sales and deep discounts in the U.S., but don't yet ship to Canada, which is fortunate for Holt Renfrew, a chain that doesn't yet offer online shopping.

By pursuing face-to-face interaction over online convenience, its managers have made it clear which side of the digital divide they sit on. To be sure, it's a gutsy move that goes against the grain. And yes, I would say that to their face.