Google “Balenciaga sock boots,” and a line up of different retailers arrange themselves on the results page, all offering the same item for the same price. If you have the $995 needed to actually make the purchase, you’d be faced with options to buy from Nordstrom, Net-a-Porter, Farfetch, Ssense, Bergdorf Goodman, Matches Fashion, or Balenciaga’s own e-commerce site, in that order. Tweak the search — remove “sock,” for instance — and the same retailers show up again, this time in a new order.

Who ends up making that sale, and why, is a question marketers at emerging luxury marketplaces like Farfetch, Net-a-Porter and LVMH’s 24 Sèvres are fighting to solve. It’s crucial, since they’re largely competing on the same inventory, save a few brand or collection exclusives here and there.

Paid search drives business, but for these companies to move away from the expensive acquisition strategy, there’s more at work in the path to purchase than who appears first in a Google search.

“For this industry, it’s more nuanced than who can buy up the most SEO,” said Ken Morris, principal at Boston Retail Partners. “Luxury customers need to be taken care of and catered to, and there’s an different playbook to follow when it comes to both getting them in the door and keeping them there.”

The arms race is on for the online luxury multibrand retailers to win over the next generation of high-spending shoppers. These companies all have deep pockets: Yoox Net-a-Porter is a $2.6 billion business. Farfetch has raised $721 million in funding and is said to be on the road to a $5 billion IPO later this year. Matches Fashion was acquired by Apax Partners for a rumored $1 billion. And 24 Sèvres, launched just last June, has the $52 billion weight of LVMH behind it.

As a shakeout approaches in the industry, who wins will boil down to two key competitive advantages: exclusive inventory and customer data comprehension.

Lead gen, but make it fashion
Last year, Farfetch CMO John Veichmanis combined the company’s performance marketing and brand marketing teams into one because of how splintered the customer’s path to purchase had become, thanks to the increase in touch points.

According to Veichmanis, customers who were coming into the site through a paid search ad on Google or a Facebook ad would buy a piece that was being promoted and leave without learning more about Farfetch from a branding perspective. That meant that the brand marketing team’s efforts were going to customers who may not be ready to purchase yet — leading to little proof of ROI — without ever reaching customers who were pulled in through a paid ad. He added that in acquiring new customers, the first investment is in content, and brand advertising is secondary.

“There are so many different entry points digitally — there’s no one linear path anymore, and our storytelling has to be consistent,” said Veichmanis. “Investing in one-offs like promotions doesn’t drive loyalty, but investing in editorial content does. Educating customers is the biggest loyalty strategy, so doing that from the outset, no matter how they first reach us, is critical.”

Content for luxury retailers is so critical because, according to Veichmanis, a customer will visit the site after a brand’s fashion show to learn about what’s happening in fashion. Then they’ll come back a few weeks later to shop for a different season. Then they’ll visit the brand when the product is released. Along the way, there needs to be inspiration, access to runway shows — what they’re looking for is proof that the site they’re buying from is even more embedded in the world of high-fashion than any particular brand is.

“A brand has the power to disintermediate at any point, because they inherently drive more loyalty than a retailer,” said Robert Burke, the CEO of retail and fashion consultancy Robert Burke Associates. “What these retailers can offer, that no one brand can, is industry context. That’s why content sounds fluffy but is so critical.”

But putting marketing and ad spend behind editorial content, paid search, keywords, retargeting and digital display ads is still not enough to acquire new customers. The last pieces come down to data.

“The luxury customer is not the average customer thanks to exclusivity,” said Morris. “There are savvy digital strategies behind sourcing potential customers by linking together lifestyles — people in certain clubs, yacht owners, travelers. You can sift through purchase histories across other industries and zero in, if you know how to use that data properly. It’s a matter of keeping track of these people, and then making sure the value of acquiring them is greater than the cost of doing so.”

24 Sèvres, nestled comfortably in a luxury conglomerate, could use this positioning to its advantage as it builds up a history of purchases, said Burke. But being surrounded by valuable customer data isn’t enough if the company doesn’t know how to use it — and Yoox Net-a-Porter and Farfetch have both made investments in data processing, machine learning, and personalization in order to better target potential high-spenders. According to Veichmanis, Farfetch invested $4 million in a marketing technology platform over the last two years; at Net-a-Porter, a 500-person team works out of YNAP’s Tech Hub, where personalization and artificial intelligence capabilities to mine customer data are at the center.

What do Céline, Louis Vuitton and Dior all have in common?
While these retailers navigate the luxury-level differentiations in standard digital marketing practices, the most crucial way to catch and keep new customers is by offering them something nobody else has. High-end fashion has some particulars, of course.

24 Sèvres competes on exclusive product with a home-field advantage: LVMH brands Céline, Louis Vuitton and Dior all sell through its online marketplace, and nowhere else.

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The exclusive Céline shop on 24 Sèvres

But it’s not a shoo-in for 24 Sèvres to get dibs on all LVMH’s goods. Net-a-Porter, for instance, just launched an exclusive capsule collection with fellow LVMH property Fendi. Like with customer acquisition, these retailers are competing against each other on brand acquisition for exclusives.

“Same with marketing, it’s more complex than sheer dollars,” said Burke. “For these brands, positioning is critical — creativity, brand marketing and alignment are all considered. It’s almost more important who you don’t buy than who you do buy. You can’t be everything to everyone — trying to do that’s actually the kiss of death in this industry.”

Similar to 24 Sèvres, Net-a-Porter has prioritized exclusive brands and capsules over all else, adding more than 50 exclusive product collections in 2017. That push is front and center in the messaging that reaches its customers: Its email marketing strategy, which drives the most revenue of all other customer channels, is pinned on exclusives and new drops.

The path to VIP
The last piece in the luxury pie is loyalty — it’s the only way to avoid paying to acquire customers who’ve already purchased from the retailer before. But it’s a precarious business for customers who must spend more than $75,000 per year to qualify for most luxury VIP programs.

“Taking care of the luxury customers you have isn’t a simple business. They need concierge, white-glove treatment and the people who provide it are the people who win,” said Morris. “This is incredibly important when you’re in a field where 20 percent of your customers drive 80 percent of your business.”

Each retailer has different requirements for customers who qualify for their VIP programs, but they offer a range of similar perks: personal stylists, customer service via messaging or live video chat, free same-day shipping. Of course, things can reach luxurious peaks: In the summer, Net-a-Porter delivers rush orders to its VIP program members in the Hamptons via chopper.

If selling what no one else is selling gets customers to sign on, understanding their behavior once they’re there gets them to stay. Differentiation is sourced from how well these companies can understand customer data and react to what it’s telling them — not just based on who’s shopping what and how often, but based on the people who stop shopping.

“If someone hasn’t shopped in six months, finding out and understanding why and plugging the holes is the only way to correct mistakes and keep loyal customers,” said Burke. “People don’t go to a marketplace like Farfetch because it’s as easy to shop as Amazon. They go because they want something special, and special at scale is incredibly hard to do.”