Personal shoppers attest to seeing an interesting shift in the spending habits of the ultra-wealthy. The Covid-19 lockdowns meant an unexpected rise in their business.
With retail most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, both companies and consumers have had to revisit their shopping philosophies. And this also applied to Africa’s vast contingent of luxury personal shoppers and high net-worth individuals, who would otherwise travel abroad for their Louis Vuittons and Valentinos. The retail therapy continues online for those with deep pockets and greater choices in a world of evolving e-commerce.
For the retail entrepreneurs, this has meant consistently reinventing the wheel – and this time, they seem to be laughing all the way to the bank.
Take 31-year-old United-Kingdom-born Nigerian Lisa Omeleh, the founder of Classles, a company that has grown from being a personal shopping service, specifically offering discounted luxury goods for its members, to a social media-based personal shopping brand, with over 300 annual clients.
A typical day for Omeleh pre-Covid would involve attending luxury fashion events such as London Fashion Week and having private meetings with the head honchos of high-end brands on behalf of her clients. These days, she spends most of her time tapping into her enormous network of luxury resellers and shopping assistants from some of the world’s most premium brands like Cartier, Tiffany and Hermès, to source the best products for her affluent customers.
“The most expensive items will typically be jewelry and Hermès Birkin bags or Kelly bags. If I am sourcing Hermès bags, I usually do a 10% to 20% commission on top of the bags. The bags range from $10,000 to $11,000 (resale price) and then if you are talking different types of skins such as crocodile or alligator, it can go upwards of $30,000. Jewelry can go from $14,000,” says Omeleh.
Her clients, she says, are the daughters of presidents, wives of governors as well as high net-worth individuals. Omeleh has seen her business grow, but Covid-19 ushered in a new era, one in which her clients rely on her expertise to keep up-to-date with fashion trends on the other side of the Atlantic.
“I have made much more money and doubled my income in the pandemic than any other time because I assume people are bored and are shopping or are looking for something to do.”– Lisa Omeleh
“A lot of people see fashion as frivolous but it is a necessity for a lot of people. I have made much more money and doubled my income in the pandemic than any other time because I assume people are bored and shopping or looking for something to do. Or they are hoping that by purchasing expensive items, they have something to look forward to when the lockdown is over. Also, a lot of my relationships with sales assistants on the shop [floor] is bearing fruit and they are sending me stuff so I can push out to my clients because they still need to make their sales even though the shops are closed,” says Omeleh, who has seen an average spending of between $15,000 to $20,000 per client since the pandemic hit last year.
It has been a good run for Omeleh, who graduated from the University of Greenwich in the UK with a journalism and public relations degree, but stumbled on a career in fashion.
“I felt I was always good at building strong relationships with clients and I made a lot of contacts with people abroad and on the ground here in the UK as well, so I transferred the skills to my business. It got to a point where I was making more money than my nine-to-five and I haven’t looked back since,” says the astute entrepreneur.
With Covid-19, Cassandra Okoroafor, of Bespoke Luxury Shopper Limited, also noticed a similar spike in her personal shopping business.
“When the pandemic started in March, I only made $11,000 and then, by May 2020, it was crazy and I had an influx of new clients,” she says.
Her journey into the glamorous world of luxury personal shopping began in 2016 when she was doing her master’s program in London. At the time, she was looking for a way to earn extra cash and stumbled on the idea of personal shopping. After creating a business plan, Okoroafor decided her niche would be primarily focused on helping unconventional ultra-wealthy clients who do not have time to shop on account of their busy schedules.
Similar to Omeleh, Okoroafor’s business utilizes social media to attract clients through glitzy images of products and by selling an aspirational lifestyle.
“The middle-class clients compensated for the sales when my wealthy clients cut back. Sales went up by 31% in 2020 compared to 2019.”– Cassandra Okoroafor
“The business moved me away from the traditional view of depending on men to survive and taught me that I can work and buy everything by myself. The biggest challenge was getting clients to trust me. You are asking people to spend over $9,000 for items and coming from Nigeria, with the stigma of scams, it affects people’s willingness to trust you. Even now, I leave my name as ‘Cassy’ because if I use my surname, some clients may start thinking I am from Nigeria and all the negative stereotypes that come with it,” says Okoroafor.
To overcome this stigma, she and Omeleh rely heavily on referrals from other clients. At the start of the pandemic, Okoroafor noticed an interesting shift in spending habits among her 200-strong clientele spread across Nigeria, Ghana, the UAE and South Africa.
“I have the ultra-wealthy clients and the normal middle-class clients. I noticed my wealthy clients cut back on spending on luxury items during the pandemic and they were more into wellbeing products and more comfort clothes to wear at home. But then, my middle-class clients started spending a lot of money on luxury bags and shoes and I think it had a lot to do with staying at home and doing nothing. I was calling it ‘boredom shopping’, they didn’t have anything to do and they spent more money at home trying to pass the time.”
By December 2020, her wealthy clients returned mainly because they had to buy gifts for family and corporate clients during the Christmas period.
“So, it was good for me because the middle-class clients compensated for the sales when my wealthy clients cut back. Sales went up by 31% in 2020 compared to 2019,” says Okoroafor.
To make profit on commissions requires an uncanny ability to handle a number of costs as well as uncertainties in the supply chain. Firstly, you have the issue of sourcing and logistics to contend with.
“Sourcing and logistics are the hardest part because when you are doing high-priced items and so many of them at a time, you have sleepless nights because you are trying to sort out shipping. Shipping to Nigeria is not as straight-forward and can be very expensive. For example, if you lose an item, there isn’t much insurance on that product. I only had a shipper lose one item before and that was a lot of headache,” recalls Omeleh.
Then, you have the issue of fluctuating currencies to deal with.
“Another problem is exchange rates and trying to convert the naira to pounds. So, you need to figure out how to incorporate that into the business in order to make a profit. For the first year, I didn’t make that much money,” says Okoroafor.
Her clients spend more on jewelry than any other item. The growth in her business has led to Okoroafor diversifying her portfolio to accommodate more demands.
“Firstly, I have VIP Sourcing, where I have to source rare items like Hermès bags. For example, in 2020, I sourced a three-toned croc Hermès bag and it was shocking to source that during a pandemic. I even sourced a bike from BMW once and it is the highest service I offer clients. Then, I offer services like buying home décor and clothing. I charge a personal shopping commission on items, which is 10%. Then I create pieces for clients and charge a fee for styling them as well,” she says.
The personal shopping industry attracts professionals from all backgrounds. Take the case of lawyer-turned-CEO of Hays Personal Shopper Limited, Abisola Ola-Saheed.
She started out in this space in 2015 initially for its flexible working hours as she started a family. Today, it is turning over more than her legal job and after making a career switch as a full-time personal shopper, Ola-Saheed is also reaping the unexpected rewards of the lockdown.
“2019 was my biggest year followed by 2020. The pandemic has not affected me in anyway because people are still shopping. My clients are saying if they die, no one will enjoy their money so, they would rather shop and enjoy themselves now than save. In 2020 alone, I had over 200 clients,” says Ola-Saheed.
Her secret is giving her clients as much attention as they require in order to close a sale.
“We shop for high net-worth clients and we source hard-to-get pieces. You are being trusted with a lot of money so with the amount of money coming into your hands, you need to give them 24/7 attention.”
By all accounts, it seems the trend, especially with wealthy African consumers, is geared towards stress-free, bespoke shopping. Brands are also increasingly leaning on personal shoppers and their loyal client base to help them retail hard-to-sell products during the lockdown and as a result, for now, it appears the market remains favorable for enterprising Africans in the diaspora willing to go the extra mile – and the last mile – to meet the insatiable shopping demands of their clients back home.