Here’s the challenge: Take a 59-year old clothing brand, whose customers, for the most part, were 50-to 70-year-old women who shopped almost exclusively in stores, and relaunch it as an ecommerce-only retailer.
Oh, and while you are doing that, get the daughters and maybe even the granddaughters of your legacy customers to shop with you.
Retail Ecommerce Ventures (REV) took on that taks with the reboot of Dressbarn.com, in a move that turned out to be perfectly timed for the pandemic.
REV acquired the Dressbarn name and intellectual property rights, after Dressbarn’s parent, Ascena Retail Group, announced in May, 2019 that it was giving up on the money-losing chain, and closing all 650 Dressbarn stores.
The founders of REV, Tai Lopez and Alex Mehr, have made a name for themselves in the retail world by buying failed and struggling brands with well-known, and – they believe – beloved names. Over the past two years REV has acquired the Pier 1, Radio Shack, Modell’s Sporting Goods, Linens ‘n Things, Dressbarn, and Stein Mart brands.
The REV strategy is that in the wide, wide world of the internet, a customer searching the web will go with a name they recognize, before they buy from an unknown. If you pair a well-known retail name with REV’s digital and social media skills, Lopez and Mehr say, you have a guaranteed winner.
That bet seemed a bit riskier for Dressbarn, with a customer base not known for embracing ecommerce. But within three months of the relaunch of Dressbarn.com, in January, 2020, the 50-70-year old Dressbarn shoppers, like everyone else, had no choice but to shop online, as the pandemic closed stores.
Dressbarn.com sales were up 165% in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the first quarter of the year, followed by 50% growth in the third quarter, according to REV. The company is projecting that 2021 first quarter sales will be up approximately 180% over the first quarter of 2020.
Much of that growth has been fueled by the brand’s ability to draw a new, younger demographic to the website, particularly the coveted 30-50 age group. During the Black Friday-Cyber Monday period in 2020, about 60% of the purchasing customers were new to the site.
As part of its plan to appeal to new customers, while keeping long-time fans, REV named Charlotte Van Dyke, 29, as CEO in November, 2020.
Van Dyke is a former fashion model who worked with Lopez previously, then co-founded the digitally-native ecommerce clothing startup Om & Ah. She has brought to Dressbarn new ways of connecting with customers through social media and the Dressbarn.com website, including live shows and styling courses, and has added new product lines, with plans for further expansion.
Van Dyke says her mission is to continue to serve the brand’s legacy customers by providing them with the clothes they love, while attracting new and younger customers with an updated approach.
“It was important to really make sure that legacy Dressbarn customer was honored,” Van Dyke said. “That demographic traditionally was one that bought more in-store, that would rather go in and feel and see.”
“What was exciting for me,” Van Dyke said, “was that we could bring a whole new and exciting experience to this demographic, and give them that historic experience, but online.”
She did that with lots of email and social media outreach to customers, including live shows with Dressbarn employees and models trying on new fashions in their homes and filming it on their phones, and takeovers of the Dressbarn social media feeds by fashion bloggers who are fans of the brand.
The lives shows, Van Dyke said, are designed to give customers “a bit of that in-person feeling as best we can,” she said.
In addition to new merchandise intended to lure younger customers – such as swimwear and a retro-styled, bohemian dress collection that was a hit last summer – Dressbarn has continued to stock the bestsellers loved by the legacy customers – like tummy control leggings and Secret Agent tummy control pants, and popover tops.
The brand also pivoted during the pandemic to highlight athleisure and work from home fashions.
When REV took over the Dressbarn website, it hired four buyers from the former Dressbarn operation, each of them veterans with over 15 years experience with brand, REV co-founder Alex Mehr said.
“These are senior people. They bring the brand knowledge to the business,” Mehr said, and have longstanding relationships with vendors and sourcing expertise.
The reason Dressbarn failed previously, Mehr said, “was not because they didn’t know how to order a dress for Dressbarn customers.”
“The reason they failed was because they were not familiar with how to build a modern tech stack, how to conduct an ecommerce operation, how to do rapid testing, how to buy the product intelligently, in a data-driven way, so that you don’t end up with a ton of leftover inventory that you have to fire sale,” he said.
At this point it is hard to know for sure how new Dressbarn is doing compared to old Dressbarn. Old Dressbarn was retail chain with 650 stores, with most of its sales made in-store, rather than online.
Dressbarn was part of what Ascena called its Value Fashion division, a segment that had $758.7 million in sales in fiscal 2019, which ended August, 2019, according to Ascena’s annual report. (Dressbarn generated most, but not all of those sales. Ascena’s other value brand, Maurice’s, which it sold in May 2019, was included in that category.)
Ascena didn’t break out Dressbarn’s online sales in its financial reports. REV says the new Dressbarn.com generated over $40 million in sales in 2020.
Van Dyke said she is encouraged that Dressbarn is connecting with younger shoppers, while keeping the older customer, as evidenced by signs like social media posts where mothers and daughters are both tagged wearing Dressbarn. She sees the potential to expand that even further, with mom and baby outfits for her new customers who are young mothers.
Is REV worried about losing its new-to-online-shopping customers if pandemic fears ease and in-person clothes shopping increases?
No, said Mehr. Once customers get trained in the convenience of online shopping, he said, they don’t return to their old way of shopping.
“If you do it right, it actually is a faster, better experience,” he said. The website can display many more styles and sizes than a store, and can offer quick and convenient delivery, he said.
“This trend started before the pandemic, and the pandemic accelerated it,” Mehr said. “I don’t think this macro trend is going to reverse.”
“I can’t think of one macro trend that has gone back from the technology adoption,” he said. “Nobody went back from digital music back to CDs – it just never happens.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that REV is ruling out ever returning to in-person shopping for Dressbarn customers. Van Dyke and Mehr see opportunities in a post-pandemic world for Dressbarn pop-up stores to introduce new collections, or store-within-a-store partnerships with other retailers.
“We’re not saying ecommerce good, brick-and-mortar bad,” Mehr said. “We’re saying ecommerce first, and brick-and-mortar has to be re-thought and reinvented.”