THE MIDAS TOUCH
Plus-sized retailer gets to know its shoppers on a personal level
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.”
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.
Theresa Royals, second from left, won the 2017 “Finding Ashley Stewart” contest that combs the country for a brand ambassador.