Last month, Simon Parry opened the door to discussion on the future of independent bridal retailers in the current choppy waters through which WED2B appears to be sailing. Hear the responses… And add your own
Bob Dylan once put his finger right on the pulse when he sang The Times They Are a-Changin’. These are apt words for what our industry is facing now. Few can say that WED2B doesn’t affect them – the high street group’s turnover shows that they have taken a massive bite out of the market at the expense of independent retailers and, as a result, suppliers, too.
Yes, independents can do things to make sure that they are going to be one of the reduced number still operating, but there is an existential threat to the existing model. It’s a stark reality that WED2B has just cut the supply chain for generic wedding product in half; mass-produced Chinese dresses now go from factory to shop floor with no middleman. Nothing can alter this fundamental process of theirs.
On the supplier side, this means the death knell for some suppliers who are neither manufacturers nor designers, but merely shipping agents for the Chinese factories.
Theirs is no longer a tenable way to operate – WED2B will now corner half of the market for generic dresses, but while there is probably room for a copycat rival, it will need millions in investment.
Independents cannot compete by selling similar dresses at a higher price point. Consumers are savvy and won’t have it.
An independent boutique can survive if it has a strategy that makes it different from WED2B. One way is by offering original and innovative designs with high-quality making from real hands-on designers. Some of us still design and manufacture in the UK and can offer much faster delivery times than China.
At Alan Hannah we have some very good selling styles that can be produced to individual order in two weeks… Now that’s fast fashion! Yes, the price point is higher than the average spend, and this sector of the market can’t support thousands of retailers – but it is not competing with the WED2B demographic.
If this sounds like a plug for our own company, there are many other British designers – including Sassi Holford, Suzanne Neville and Charlie Brear – who still produce amazing dresses here in the UK.
Okay, so not all dresses can be wholly produced here (including some of our own MiaMia and Rita Mae collections), but we would assert that these labels are innovative and ahead of the curve, not just offering predictable ‘product’. Thus, again, they have a point of difference, but at a very competitive price.
There are some amazing designers making their dresses in China who create original designs at a lower price point, which are unique and interesting. Go to Harrogate and find designers who are in love with design and who can give you their years of experience and expertise and who create and foster collections which have a personality and point of difference. They do exist.
While the high street is still dominated by massive chains, they are increasingly challenged by a new wave – thousands of independent shops selling anything from ethical jumpers to hand-made cards and artefacts. Some are high-end and some are low, but one thing they have in common is that they are offering something with personality and wit. The democratising space on Instagram and other platforms enables them to connect with a potentially large audience for very little financial investment.
Be individual, creative, customer-centred and offer something different. Work as a team with your designers and don’t stock more than four-five collections. Designers value loyalty and appreciation of their designs and will bend over backwards for you if you communicate properly and tell them what you want from them.
Try to hold some stock of your popular sellers so that you can have some off-the-peg availability instead of just ordering countless, different, confusing choices. This can entice customers who feel a little intimidated by the traditional consultant-led approach, those that like to be able to browse first with the possibility of buying something there and then with the chance that they can buy a new dress in their own size that day.
Unlikely? This is the way women buy the rest of their wardrobe these days. You may even get a discount from suppliers!
Create a great human relationship with more national and local suppliers and creators and you will be on the front foot and not just defending an outdated model.
In my 15 years as a leading industry trainer, I have seen bridal retail change unbelievably. Getting that sale is harder today, no doubt whatsoever. Harder doesn’t mean impossible, though.
My advice to Independent bridal retailers is don’t be despondent; it’s a waste of energy and customers can sense it a mile off.
Instead, focus on how you can make your business better.
Be aware of any competition, but don’t fixate on them. All the time you are worrying about what other people are doing is eroding and chipping away at your hard work as you strive to make your own business a success.
Large, multinational companies have, if anything, given us a wake-up call. Brides today are very savvy when they shop. If a bride chooses to buy a dress in a WED2B, they may not have been your customer anyway. Do your homework.
I guarantee 100 percent that you cannot beat a specialised bridal appointment in a fabulous bridal boutique. Historically, it’s what we are famous for. Make that your focus.
Consider specialising. I worked with a client recently who does just that. Her sales are rocketing.
I believe in today’s buying climate, giving everything to your customer, bending over backwards and never saying no has been detrimental to business. After all, the big boys offer nothing like the experience you do – and they sell a lot of dresses.
This begs the question: Are you trying too hard? Can you rein in your service without compromising customer care? You most certainly can. Sometimes, less is more.
It’s easy to be threatened by businesses like WED2B seemingly swallowing up the entire industry. However, I feel we need to apply some perspective to the issue.
WED2B has done a fantastic job since rebranding from The Wedding Dress Factory Outlet in 2015, and with solid investment behind them, their growth trajectory is clearly only going one way. Their business model is based on one of scale – and the larger they grow, the larger the resources they have to grow further.
Like ’em or loathe ’em – commercially they are doing a fine job.
The question independent retailers must ask themselves is this: ‘Do I want to have 30-plus stores nationwide and be running a £20m-plus business?’. If the answer is yes, then roll up your sleeves and study the WED2B model.
However, I suspect most boutique owners will answer that as ‘no’.
Aside from paying the bills, they’re in this to enjoy the roller coaster that comes with running your own business, to reap the rewards of hard graft, to have a comfortable retirement and deliver a product and service that makes customers smile. So, if you’re not trying to compete with WED2B at a strategic level, you have a different overarching commercial objective and a different proposition.
There are only so many brides in your catchment area who are going to visit your store. You’ve done the sums when you first set the business up and went cap in hand to the bank manager, so go back to that thought process and update it based on today’s figures (your local census or the ONS are helpful resources). Your concern is how to attract and eventually convert those customers, not to worry about how many stores WED2B will roll out over the next quarter.
The customer journey, upon becoming engaged, generally begins with three initial actions – seek advice from friends, tap away into search engines and read consumer wedding media (print, online and social). You can have an impact on all three of these actions with an easily manageable marketing strategy. And it doesn’t cost as much as you think.
Firstly when it comes to search engine marketing (a PPC – pay per click – campaign), WED2B will be spending thousands per month on their campaigns… But you don’t need to. By analysing, tweaking and monitoring a simple PPC campaign, blogging regularly and having an SEO copywriter review and update your website, you might not be the number one search result (Google prioritises higher spenders), but you can easily be on the first page on desktops and mobiles.
Likewise, a PR campaign could be as simple as putting together your predictions for next season’s bridal fashion, taking cues from designer hot-spots like the US, Australia and the Middle East. Send it over to an editorial team and see what they say. You might be surprised by their reaction.
And finally, crucially, is those word-of-mouth recommendations. There’s nothing quite as sweet as when a customer comes through the door as the result of a glowing review from a friend they trust. You have been receiving these for years and pride yourself on them, so you have this one nailed.
In summary, I believe that independent retailers need to keep their heads down and focus on their customer base, their customers’ journey and the immediate impact they can have upon those customers.
Complacency kills! Seven years ago I was Little Miss Smug. I thought that I had all the best labels in my two Tunbridge Wells boutiques, and when approached by new designers I would condescendingly reply: “Don’t call me… I’ll call you”.
Imagine, after 15 years of controlling the area, not one but two new shops opened on my turf! Little Miss Smug morphed into Mafiosa Maria, and this is what I learned and how I can relate to the threat now posed by WED2B…
Disrupt or be disrupted? WED2B certainly are a disruptor, and we need to learn from it. If we don’t, then we will die. My competitor introduced brides to the ‘bridal experience’ and her entire marketing campaign was social media-led. We fought back with a charge for Saturday appointments and seeing fewer brides. We left behind our print advertising and woke up to the digital world!
Define your market and drop designers. WED2B knows its market and taps into the bargain-basement bride and the ‘I want it now’ millennial mentality, facilitated by its short supply chain. My goal was to maintain profitability, so I decided to drop designers with unrealistic minimums and work with suppliers who are responsive and with shorter lead times. Our strategy was not to compete, but to complement the other boutiques and not to try to appeal to every bride.
Competitive advantage. WED2B knows it, trains it and promotes it. We defined ours, which was to carry the best British and international designers that can be seen in one boutique with an end-to-end luxe experience with an in-house fitting service. Now defined, we eat, breathe and sleep this and keep ‘selling’ this philosophy through all platforms.
Upscale with economies of scale. WED2B has the advantage of being able to employ experts and has a huge marketing reach. We chose to join Luxe Bride, which is a fabulous group offering great support; a joint-marketing presence like this is far stronger than any independent boutique can achieve attempting to go it alone.
The whole WED2B issue has, without doubt, shaken the market to the core and given overseas manufacturers, UK-based wholesalers, designers and, of course, retailers, plenty of anxiety and sleepless nights.
It is often the initial stages of something like this that causes the panic and hysteria. The market will always settle down after adjusting to the changes.
But what will be left?
Scenario A is that WED2B will implode due to rapid expansion at too fast a pace, and the lack of control and stock/margin issues and so on. Look at the example of Pronuptia 20 years ago with over 70 stores – where is it now in the UK?
Scenario B, on the other hand, is that WED2B will continue to expand and to tear into the turnover of the independents. Maybe there is room for a chain of stores such as WED2B and a strong and aggressive independent sector.
For too long now you could argue that there have been far too many bridal stores, so maybe a leaner, more punchy and professional independent bridal sector can make brides realise what buying a wedding dress is really all about, and what a professional retailer can do for them. Yes, they may charge for appointments, but look at what you get for such a small sum of money.
I’ve seen some small towns with as many as five bridal retailers in the same area, competing for the same brides. I don’t see that in any other sector. Maybe that five can become three, or two? Collaboration may be the key.
My tips would be:
- Keep the paid-for appointments. The policy makes you stand out as being confident in your product and your service.
- Concentrate on the ‘uniqueness’ of your products, contra this to the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap versions.
- Your website is your front window. Keep it fresh and updated as much as your actual front window. New images are always good.
- Use and collaborate with your suppliers – they need you to succeed. Trunk shows, special offers, promotions etc, but do them together, as a joint-force.
Without question, WED2B is delivering what our current supply chain struggle with – on-trend product to go.
The millennial generation has grown up in a ‘see it now, buy it now’ culture. The bridal market has shifted significantly since bridalwear has become more readily available on the high street. We have not kept up.
Brides truly struggle when we discuss a six-month lead time… and rightly so; it is archaic. I am so lucky to work with some brilliant British labels who can turn dresses around quickly, but this is very unusual.
Thirty-five percent of my shop is on a three-to-six-month lead time and that’s the issue here: it is impossible to explain that to a bride.
I am fearful of the future. The current business model is broken and we need to realise that and adjust it fast. It won’t fix itself.
Currently our designers showcase products in March and retailers have to wait until September/October for the samples to be delivered. This opens up their designs for plagiarism.
These copy cats often end up in front of the consumer before we have our samples – the knock offs are manufactured abroad in weeks and shipped in days.
I work with many retailers from a coaching perspective, and most are selling their samples to close the sale and compete with this new culture.
This is often below margin and leaves a gap in the store with lost sales until the sample is replaced.
I would love to say that holding some stock would be an option, but this simply doesn’t work with our business models. The supply chain needs a major overhaul to reduce its time line from order to delivery.
I’d also love to say that there are many things that retailers can do, but I firmly believe this challenge sits with the supply chain. I believe retailers need to remain focused on delivering a first-class experience, and above all, offering an in-house fitting service is vital.
Off-the-peg bridal retailers and WED2B cannot offer this. It’s only a matter of time until this is being discussed far and wide as an epic fail.