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Ascena Retail Group CEO prepares for the next generation of brick-and-mortar

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Retail technology is evolving quickly, with even traditionally brick-and-mortar retailers giving shoppers an experience that integrates the best of the digital world with all the advantages of a physical store.

With 2,500 stores across North America, Ascena Retail Group has made headlines with its store growth in recent years. The company, which includes the subsidiaries dressbarn, maurices and Justice reaches girls and women from school age to middle age. The brands, and the store experiences, are quite distinct. dressbarn markets apparel to women age 35-55, maurices targets ages 17-34 and Justice attracts girls ages 7-12.

In a Super Session at Retail's BIG Show hosted by Deloitte , David Jaffe, Ascena Retail Group CEO, will discuss the evolution of the store in today's world and opportunities to enhance the in-store experience for shoppers.

Ascena Retail Group tops the STORES Hot 100 list as the fastest-growing retailer in 2011. What has made the past couple years so successful for your organization?

We're very proud of the STORES Hot 100 designation. We stick to a proven formula – differentiated fashion, compelling value, and a personalized customer experience. From a growth perspective, our success has fueled a strong reception from landlords. This allowed us to open more stores in both core and non-core markets. The bricks-and-mortar growth has been augmented by continued success within our ecommerce worlds across all three brands.

I'm particularly proud of our sustained success, including each of our brand's impressive results over the holiday period allowing Ascena to lead the retail pack by posting a notable 14% comp result in December.

You'll be a part of a Super Session panel at Retail's BIG Show, The Next Evolution: The Store 3.0™. As consumers become more comfortable with ecommerce and social media, what do you see as the role of the brick-and-mortar store?

I believe that each channel complements and supports one another. Our customers are multi-dimensional and we strive to engage them both online and in our stores. To be a truly omnichannel retailer, we need to constantly look at how to create a seamless integration between all channels.

That said, bricks-and-mortar has clear advantages – the ability to try things on, the fun of shopping, service that makes it easier, and the immediate gratification. Most importantly however, is the actual experience – after all, shopping is a social activity and we are social beings. If a retailer does it right, the store has the opportunity to become her third place (after home and work) when she needs some much needed “me time.”

What are your stores doing today to enhance the shopping experience that you couldn't do a few years ago?

We've invested in new technology and systems upgrades with the end goal of trying to make things "faster, better, and smarter" for our associates. Our goal is to free associates from doing tasks and operations in the backroom so they can spend more time on the floor building relationships with our customers.

What does the next evolution of the in-store experience look like for Justice, maurices and dressbarn?

We will continue to use new technology to evolve the degree of personalization and customization for our customers. And we'll continue to seek ways to target promotions, messaging, and product recommendations to create a more meaningful experience.

Additionally, we are constantly refining our store prototypes to ensure they are appealing, customer-friendly and fun.

Finally, the importance of talent can't be over-emphasized. We believe that associate satisfaction is directly correlated to our customer's experience. Therefore, our energy is spent hiring well, building a strong culture, developing our associates, and ensuring our training materials focus on creating an experience that exceeds our customer's expectations.

A few years ago, Ascena Retail Group acquired Justice, a young, energetic brand for tween girls. Were there any lessons you learned from Justice that you were able to use to enhance your other brand offerings?

Actually, the integration between all brands has led to a sharing of best practices and new thinking across each of our banners. Immediately after the Justice merger, we created 100 DayPlan teams which paired counterparts from all areas of the business. The goal of these meetings was to share new ideas and identify potential synergies. We found both low-hanging fruit as well as more far-reaching synergies, such as leveraging Justice's direct sourcing arm.

What do you enjoy most about working in the retail industry?

In two words: great people. I feel extremely fortunate to be working with such strong teams at all three of our divisions. We have an internal phrase we frequently use called "divine discontent," which is about challenging the status quo and constantly looking at where we can improve.

When I think about our teams, that intellectual sparring and sense of continuous improvement and innovation keeps everything fresh in this dynamic industry that is always changing.

What are you most looking forward to at Retail's BIG Show next week?

I've just been asked to join the NRF Board and am excited to attend my first Board meeting. I've always found the BIG Show to be the premiere event in our industry and am looking forward to walking the floor, meeting key vendors and identifying new opportunities and services.