THE MIDAS TOUCH

Plus-sized re­tailer gets to know its shop­pers on a per­sonal level

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Charisse Jones

Rachel WaldenCranston wasn’t plan­ning to shop. ❚ She’d stopped in an Ash­ley Ste­wart store in Har­lem sim­ply to re­turn a book she had bought there – but walked out in­stead with a pair of capri pants, a dress, a jump­suit and a blue purse em­bla­zoned with the word “Fear­less.” ❚ That’s of­ten how it goes, says the 44-year-old school teacher, who vis­its the plus-sized re­tail chain at least once a month. She also pops into Lane Bryant, Ash­ley Ste­wart’s re­tail ri­val that sits right next door. But she says a

visit to Ash­ley Ste­wart just feels dif­fer­ent.

“It al­most feels like you’re com­ing over to your girl­friend’s house,” she said.

In the era of Ama­zon, re­tail­ers look­ing to con­nect with fickle cus­tomers may want to take a page out of Ash­ley Ste­wart’s play­book.

The 27-year-old com­pany, which caters to African-Amer­i­can women sizes 12 and up, has at­tracted a pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing among its shop­pers.

Ash­ley TV, which spot­lights trends and events, has gar­nered over 8 mil­lion views on YouTube and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

And its “Find­ing Ash­ley Ste­wart” com­pe­ti­tion searches the coun­try for an un­known to be­come the re­tailer’s brand am­bas­sador. It will cul­mi­nate in Septem­ber with a star-stud­ded red car­pet event that will fea­ture such celebri­ties as Loni Love, ‘90s hip-hop fa­vorite Naughty By Na­ture, and me­dia per­son­al­ity Soledad O’Brien.

There’s “this sense of com­mu­nity ... and re­ally en­gag­ing on a more gran­u­lar level with the cus­tomer,” says Kim­berly Jenk­ins, a lec­turer at Par­sons School of De­sign who’s de­vel­oped a course on fash­ion and race. “They’re not just try­ing to sell to her. ... They’ve also done their home­work on get­ting to know who she is, what she does on the week­ends, what she does for her ca­reer. Hav­ing that sense of in­ti­macy with the cus­tomer is some­thing that I think (other) re­tail­ers should take notes from.”

Plus is in

Plus-size fash­ion was once rel­e­gated to a hand­ful of spe­cial­ized chains while the rest of the in­dus­try fo­cused on a cus­tomer base that was size 8 and un­der.

But with 70.7 per­cent of Amer­i­cans age 20 and up con­sid­ered over­weight or obese, re­tail­ers and de­signer la­bels rang­ing from Wal­mart to Karl Lager­feld Paris are now courting a fuller-fig­ured clien­tele, chas­ing their share of what has be­come a $21-bil­lion busi­ness.

As of June, 17 per­cent of the dol­lars spent on women’s cloth­ing in the pre­vi­ous 12 months were for plus-sized fash­ions, ac­cord­ing to re­tail mar­ket re­search group NPD. And U.S. sales were up 2 per­cent as com­pared to the year be­fore.

Old Navy an­nounced last month that it will bring its on­line Plus col­lec­tion into 75 stores. J.C. Pen­ney de­buted Bou­tique Plus, its first pri­vate brand ex­clu­sively de­signed for the plus-size women, in 2016, and all of its pri­vate brands go up to size 18 in stores. And in May, haute fash­ion house Karl Lager­feld Paris be­gan fea­tur­ing its first ever plus-size col­lec­tion at Stitch Fix, the on­line per­sonal styling ser­vice which of­fers sizes up to 24W and 3X.

“‘Plus-sized’ used to be . . . a dirty word,” says Mar­shal Co­hen, NPD’s chief re­tail an­a­lyst. “It’s not any­more.”

Still, from the so­cial me­dia lounges where shop­pers can pose and snap self­ies like pop stars, to the curvy man­nequins on the sales floor, Ash­ley Ste­wart of­fers its shop­pers a unique propo­si­tion – and cel­e­brates a group that has long been ig­nored.

“I would say it’s a niche mar­ket within a niche mar­ket,” Co­hen said of Ash­ley Ste­wart’s largely African-Amer­i­can cli- en­tele. “They have a very strong fol­low­ing and ... as long as Ash­ley Ste­wart con­tin­ues to de­liver on the prom­ise of giv­ing the cus­tomer what the cus­tomer wants, they’ll con­tinue to main­tain their share and even grow.”

Loy­alty meets best prac­tices

Ash­ley Ste­wart’s cus­tomer base stuck with it even as the com­pany filed for bank­ruptcy twice within four years. But it took more than loy­alty to keep Ash­ley Ste­wart afloat af­ter it came close to liq­ui­dat­ing in 2014.

The com­pany’s CEO James Rhee took the top job in Au­gust 2013 af­ter spend­ing two years on its board, and he has be­come its fiercest cham­pion. He has steered the pri­vately held re­tail chain to four con­sec­u­tive years of dou­ble-digit prof­itabil­ity af­ter it failed to make money the first 22 years that it was in busi­ness. An­nual sales are now ap­proach­ing $200 mil­lion.

Res­cu­ing the com­pany was a tall task. Five years ago, Ash­ley Ste­wart’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters didn’t have WiFi, and its stores re­lied on old-fash­ioned cash reg­is­ters. At one point, it had to hire se­cu­rity as ven­dors waited out­side to be paid in cash for their mer­chan­dise. And the com­pany sold scrap metal and fur­ni­ture from shut­tered lo­ca­tions to make pay­roll.

“There’s a per­se­ver­ance to our brand and to our cus­tomer base. That’s the only way the brand could have sur­vived,” Rhee says. “How can you not have com­put­ers in your stores? . . . And then you fast-for­ward to to­day. When we paired up best prac­tices with a 20year her­itage and loy­alty, it just ex­ploded.”

Rhee crafted an am­bi­tious busi­ness plan that was ex­e­cuted over six months. In April 2014, Ash­ley Ste­wart emerged from bank­ruptcy, and three months later the cor­po­rate staff packed up its own U-Hauls to move to a space where most em­ploy­ees sit to­gether rather than in of­fices to foster col­lab­o­ra­tion and squash hi­er­ar­chy. Rhee closed roughly 100 stores and brought in vi­tally needed tech­nol­ogy.

Now, the com­pany’s turn­around has been com­pelling enough to at­tract the at­ten­tion of The In­vus Group, a longterm in­vestor in Weight Watch­ers that bought a ma­jor­ity stake in Ash­ley Ste­wart in June 2016. The com­pany’s cus­tomer base is also ex­pand­ing, with 40 per­cent of its on­line pur­chases be­ing made by white women.

The women who staff the sales floor are uni­ver­sally dubbed “Miss Ash­ley.” And many shop­pers make a stop at Ash­ley Ste­wart part of their weekly or even daily rou­tine, com­ing in on their lunch break or with girl­friends af­ter church or be­fore head­ing to a night out. A store in Ne­wark has a karaoke ma­chine while the Har­lem lo­ca­tion hosts a monthly fash­ion show.

“We don’t treat our cus­tomer as a cus­tomer,” says Chary Wright, who has worked for the com­pany for 19 years. “She’s fam­ily. We know who’s get­ting mar­ried, who’s hav­ing a baby, who’s get­ting di­vorced.

Marie De­nee, founder and edi­tor of the plus-size fash­ion and style blog “The Curvy Fashionista,” says that Ash­ley Ste­wart makes its shop­pers feel like more than a trans­ac­tion.

“It’s set up from the be­gin­ning as a re­la­tion­ship,” she says. “That kind of con­ver­sa­tion re­ally al­lows for a dif­fer­ent type of in­ter­ac­tion.”

JOSMAR TAVERAS/USA TO­DAY

Ash­ley Ste­wart, a cloth­ing re­tailer that caters to African-Amer­i­can women sizes 12 and up, has a unique con­nec­tion with cus­tomers like Rhon­de­sia Jones, above, who re­cently showed off a new out­fit at the Har­lem store in New York City.

GETTY IM­AGES FOR ASH­LEY STE­WART

Theresa Roy­als, sec­ond from left, won the 2017 “Find­ing Ash­ley Ste­wart” con­test that combs the coun­try for a brand am­bas­sador.

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