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Retail Trends

Plus-sized Commitment

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Ashley Stewart has been the retail destination for curvy, trend-seeking shoppers for 20 years. The mission of the specialty chain has not changed since entrepreneur Joseph Stitt saw a need for fashionable, plus-size clothing for urban African-American women. In naming his venture, the legend goes, he stitched together the names of two distinctly different style icons — Laura Ashley and Martha Stewart – and launched Ashley Stewart in Brooklyn.

Stitt sold his share of the company in 2000, and Ashley Stewart (then owned by Urban Brands) filed for bankruptcy in September 2010. Gordon Brothers Group, specializing in liquidation and restructuring, quickly acquired the chain; the privately held company is majority owned by GB Merchant Partners, the private equity arm of Gordon Brothers.

Today, Ashley Stewart’s target — the urban fashionista who needs sizes ranging from 12 to 26 — has grown to embrace more ethnicities, but its commitment to outfitting women with an eye on good fit and good value has stayed the course. Ashley Stewart does this through more than 180 stores in 25 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The company also maintains an e-commerce site that offers sizes up to 32.

As Ashley Stewart celebrates two decades of serving its customers, it does so with a new leader at the helm.

CEO and president Celia Clancy is a retail veteran with experience in both fashion and value retail. Her retail career began at Filene’s and led to Bradlees and Walmart; she also served as a senior operations consultant at private equity firm Cerberus before being named president of AJWright in 2007. (AJWright, the discount clothing store division of TJX, closed last year.)

“One of the things that I love about Ashley Stewart is the brand,” Clancy says. “We have a real DNA that has a unique and powerful heritage. And while the home office and the management and leadership of the brand has had its ups and downs, the customer is very loyal and has stayed true to the brand, because Ashley Stewart really is about fashion.”

Among its other attributes are value and fit. Both have translated favorably for Ashley Stewart — as Clancy explains, “We have a very strong following relative to competition.”

Those competitors are as close as the next strip center, regional mall or mass merchant, and “this market will continue to be an attractive one for retailers who can get their positioning right,” says Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle. The plus-size customer has traditionally been under-served, he says, particularly by more conventional retailers like department and discount stores that tend to focus more on a narrower size range. The upshot is that this allows retailers like Ashley Stewart “to develop an even tighter focus on their consumer.”

Focus is something Clancy brings to the table in her new role. “When people ask what we will do to reinforce our brand leadership position, I tell them we’re going to work on every aspect of the business, from being closer to our customer to taking a look at and analyzing our position in fashion, to looking at our real estate, our in-store experience and some of the back-of-the-house processes.”

That’s in addition to testing new product lines like lingerie and expanding its jewelry offer. What excites Clancy is putting the pieces and parts together. The “building blocks” are in place, she says, to expand the retail footprint and develop new growth channels including e-commerce and licensing.

Easy, speedy confidence
At the moment, Ashley Stewart is “in the midst of strengthening technology” throughout the company, Clancy says. On her wish list is “21st-century functionality and speed at our cash registers.” Those cash registers might be ringing even more quickly these days, as styles not found in-store can now be ordered online and shipped to stores at no charge to the customer.

Such in-store amenities continue to support the relevance of bricks-and-mortar. But it’s also about the people, Clancy says, pointing to Ashley Stewart’s lower-than-average turnover at the store level.

The Ashley Stewart customer can count on in-store help from well-trained employees who receive ongoing education in the latest fashions and trends. That brings Clancy back to a day-to-day focus on customers and the power of the in-store Ashley Stewart experience, which “is known for being fun,” she says. Some “heavy lifting” has already begun: Plans are on the table to remodel many of the company’s existing units.

Before Clancy took the helm in August, Ashley Stewart unveiled new prototype stores in Chicago and along Brooklyn’s Fulton Street, a busy transit and retail hub. The latter 5,933-sq.-ft. store signals a return to the company’s Brooklyn roots and is an anchor to the area’s revitalization. The store is brighter and more open than existing units with wide aisles, merchandising displays organized by color and trend stories and lighting that allows the vibrant fashions to almost jump off the walls.

With shopability enhanced, the new design ramps up inspiration by way of lush lifestyle photography and backlit accessories displays found throughout the store, so that Ashley Stewart fashionistas can make their own head-to-toe fashion statements with ease, speed and confidence.

Tapping into customers
In comparing the old and new Ashley Stewart, one blogger put it this way: “Their old look was kind of a snooze with elevator music and dark, dim, unflattering lighting. The store was always jammed, packed with clothes [so] even the savviest shopper would feel overwhelmed. Well, all that has changed. The new store layout is easy to navigate through with bright lighting, bold colorful signage and blood-pumping top 40 hits on heavy rotation.”

Another wrote: “Ashley Stewart is also known for having great jewelry. Skinny girls have been spotted numerous times picking up bold necklaces and shoulder-skimming earrings. Now, their accessories section is bigger than ever.

“They’ve also included more bras and panty sets as well as shapers. We must say that it was a blast checking out the new flagship store and being able to see a plus-size brand realize that they need to get with the times and notice that the new plus-size woman wants her fashion just like everyone else, fierce.”

That sort of feedback is invaluable, says Clancy, who explains that Ashley Stewart uses a number of traditional and new-media techniques to maintain an ongoing dialogue with its customers. Keeping tabs on customers will likely spur any number of marketing initiatives aimed at turning core customers into brand ambassadors.

“Our customer is very connected,” Clancy says. “For starters, they all have cell phones and many more than [had] historically been thought are online.” For that reason, she says, “We’ve been working on our communication style, for example, to make sure our Facebook messaging matches the DNA of Ashley Stewart.”

Though she’s only been on the job a few months, Clancy has already gleaned valuable insights. “Our customer wants fast fashion for real women,” she says. “We know she doesn’t want yesterday’s news when it comes to fashion.

“We certainly go to Facebook every day to see what our customer has to say. We know she’s really engaged with the brand, and we know from experience she’ll be candid with us.