My Very Vuitton Summer

What I did:

This summer, I had the opportunity to work with the CEO of Louis Vuitton Korea on a variety of projects. The heart of my summer revolved around store operations. I spent three weeks in various stores throughout Seoul, selling bags and shadowing store managers, and then spent the next seven weeks analyzing store operations and developing recommendations on how to improve their efficiency. Furthermore, I had the arduous task of mystery shopping at six Louis Vuitton stores and benchmarking them against shopping experiences at Chanel, Hermes, Fendi and Gucci (yes, poor me) and I participated in a marketing initiative to better understand Louis Vuitton’s brand perception against its main competitors, Chanel and Hermes.

Key takeaways:

Luxury isn’t all that luxurious: If you expect to be sitting in a corner office in plush surroundings, “conducting customer research” (translation: discussing whether you think monogram is nicer than murakami), “testing” out new products (translation: taking pictures of yourself sporting the $4,000 theta bag and sending it to all your friends), “finding new opportunities for enhancing PR” (translation: seeing and being seen at the hottest fashion and trunk shows and maybe chatting it up with Colin Farrell), you will be in for a surprise. Much to my surprise, LV inside is anything but what the brand stands for outside. The offices in Seoul were modest, the work is real and the heart of everything we did revolved around the store. Furthermore, the company did not have the internal luxuries of systematized processes and procedures so monthly sales meetings were ad-hoc, direction was unclear and ideas were not shared throughout the office, let alone the region or the entire global company.

Lots of value to add: Because of the lack of structure, systems and processes in companies like LV, I found that there was a significant opportunity for MBAs to add value. With plush margins to fall back on, meetings are driven by ideas and creativity rather than bottom-line numbers. However, it does not mean that these companies do not appreciate business acumen. From placing some analytical rigor behind work done, to thinking out of the box on new initiatives, to helping increase store efficiency or simply reformatting excel or powerpoint to help facilitate daily activities, the industry is ripe with opportunities to add value and put case work to action. In my situation, because LV Korea was facing a difficult year, the CEO was open to new ideas and eager for operational efficiency recommendations and for that reason, he embraced consulting charts (filled with incredibly insightful “so-whats”- i.e. cool chart, now “so-what?”), financial analysis and a more structured perspective on what he needed to do to turnaround the company.

Love the brand or leave: In a world where pay is low, career path is not clear and culture is not always collaborative, loving the brand is a must. However, there are two bifurcations of brand love: One is when your passion for the brand stems primarily from your love of the products as a consumer. The second is when your passion stems not only from love-of-the-brand but also love of the retailing industry. If you fall into group one, you might want to think long and hard about this career/internship option and consider keeping luxury goods as a product you buy versus a career choice (despite what others say, the discounts may not offset the low salary). If you fall into the second bucket, read on.

“What marketing? It is all about the store”: To note in bold, if you want marketing experience, a place like LV is not where to find it. The core of the company is at the store and everything about the company revolves around the store operations (and this probably holds true for most luxury good companies like Gucci, Prada, Hermes, Chanel, etc.). The only marketing that is done outside of Paris is mostly VIP/customer relationship management-oriented and PR/event-driven. Additionally, most companies in the space highly value in-store experience so if you are looking to craft the right summer internship that will position you well for the long-term path, think store operations (and this could range from working at the store to analyzing the effectiveness of their current visual merchandising strategy).

Advice to those who want to get into the industry or at least try it for the summer:

Be persistent: This is not a one-shot game. If you feel truly passionate about working for a luxury goods company, persistence is key and working many different avenues of entry is a must. There are two buckets of persistence. One is gaining breadth in contacts that may have relevant industry/target company experience: Remember your father’s friend’s neighbor’s co-worker’s wife who used to work at LV? Contact her. That alum name you found, contact him. That sectionmate who has a friend who has “the” LV friend, talk to her. Attend the WSA and marketing conference network with professors and current students (especially second years or first years who worked for companies you are trying to target). Tap into alums. Read Women’s Wear Daily and see who was recently hired. Rekindle friendships with old colleagues. The second is pushing even further with the most promising contacts: Don’t harass but be pro-active in chatting with them. Call, email, or write handwritten letters…whatever you think will be most effective but don’t be afraid to boldly pursue these individuals. If you can, meet up with them as it will give you a better chance to show your true colors and will make the contact more “invested” in you. Remember: No pain, no shame…no gain.

Be patient, but start early: Do not expect to secure a job by early 2005 (if you are an RC) or late November (if you are an EC) but if you are interested, start today with your quest. I did not get my summer job until mid-April but I started late 2003/early 2004. Most of these companies do not work on an MBA schedule and do not recognize their needs until a couple months before the summer begins (if they even do). For that reason, starting early and hitting all channels is important. Further, starting early will allow you to “help them realize their need” for an MBA intern/full-time hire. The best way to get demand is to create it and creating it takes time.

Be willing to work for free (but use it as a last resort): Most of these companies do not pay well (if at all) for their interns. My advice would be if you do happen to negotiate a salary worth peanuts, negotiate a performance-based bonus (which they can give you in products) to compensate for the low income. Additionally, be prepared to work for free but use it as a last resort when all other desperate measures have been fully utilized.

Don’t stress: Most of the ECs I know who wanted to get into the industry for the summer in some format or another (luxury retail, cosmetics or goods) were all successful in finding some form of entry. With the market picking up and the industry slowly recognizing the need for smart people, I am optimistic that those who really make a deliberate effort to search will find good opportunities. For the first time after many years of job scarcity: if you search, you will find.

On a final note, as this is only one person’s perspective on the industry, my biggest advice to anyone interested in the industry would be to talk to more second years or first years with relevant experience. I’m sure they have additional tactics (not mentioned here) that can be used to snag that perfect job (not to mention contacts). The best starting points are right here on campus. Best of luck to you and let the soul searching begin!