Pandemic shutdowns made 2020 the year of the “minimony” or postponement of weddings altogether. But as the wedding industry gets back into full swing this year, David’s Bridal is benefiting from much more than the pent-up demand for full-blown ceremonies and receptions across the United States.
The Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based bridal retailer also is pressing its new identity as a fully committed omnichannel brand under the direction of CEO James Marcum, who joined David’s as CEO two years ago from a position as senior operating partner of Apollo Management, a private-equity firm, where he specialized in retail brands.
Other retail chiefs could learn from how he’s already transformed the company from a traditional bricks-and-mortar outfit that siloed e-commerce, to one that is creating the across-the-board synergies that come from recognizing and embracing the need to present one multi-faceted face to the modern consumer.
“If we were going to leapfrog with this business, we really had to take all the friction out and become omnichannel, and get that bride her dress however she wanted it,” Marcum told Chief Executive. “That meant one set of policies, with everyone motivated to do one thing.”
What has he learned along the way that could help other CEOs facing similar dilemmas about streamlining their go-to-market strategies? Simple. “Build great teams. Take out the bureaucracy. Be nimble.” And master online media, Marcum might have added, including fanatical attention to customer feedback.
David’s has more than 300 stores across the country, so the company took a big hit from pandemic shutdowns of weddings for several months and the persistence of cautious attitudes around such potential “super-spreader” events even at this stage of covid. But when it came to fighting another recent scourge of gown retailers—“showrooming” at their stores by brides who leave and then order their choices online—David’s was protected because the company sells only its proprietary designs.
Sales now are “running solidly over pre-covid levels and quite frankly we see that trend continue right into 2022 and, hopefully, into 2023,” Marcum said.
Yet, Marcum said, David’s was hamstrung from participating in the industry’s e-commerce boom by its own structure. The company “had lost its way” already in the blossoming channel with “its own leadership that ran e-commerce, with a senior leader who didn’t report to marketing or merchandising and made his own decisions on pricing and promotion.
“So think about the woman who had walked into one of our stores with her cell phone, after going online and spending hours researching and thinking about what dress she wanted—including being invited to click on her favorites. And online it would say, ‘Book an appointment’ at one of our stores.’ But when she walked into our store, our [salesperson] would look at her and blink because in the store there was no visibility to the customer’s favorites or what style she aspired to. And the price in the store was different.
“The store viewed online as their arch enemy,” Marcum said. “It was a classic case of a brick retailer saying they had a digital strategy but not really having a clear one.”
So Marcum moved on to a new chief financial officer, new chief technology officer, new chief marketing officer, new chief merchant and a new head of digital while retaining “the real diamonds” on the pre-existing staff “who stood up and bought in. So what we’ve created here is a dynamic, nimble culture and team that honestly—because of the changes we started making pre-covid—has helped propel us right through covid.”
One organizing principle was to put the David’s Bridal customer at the center of the company and work outward from there, appealing to brides as a one-stop wedding-planning center. So, for instance, the company has created a suite of digital tools that are highly integrated with its bricks-and-mortar operations and help brides select and track their favorites while also gleaning lots of helpful information about putting together a wedding.
“We created a series of digital tools called ‘look books’ that we call a vision board for curating a wedding and its style,” Marcum said. “We have wedding checklists that are pretty robust, where you can start planning your entire event, customize it, and give out tasks to friends.”
In May, David’s launched a YouTube Live channel that features “around the clock wedding planning content and inspiration,” as the company put it.
Establishing meaningful two-way communications with brides was important to fleshing out an effective omnichannel approach, Marcum said.
“One of the most pivotal changes we made is that we scrape every [customer] review that anyone posts on any social-media channel—Google, Yelp, Yahoo—and we focus on the one-star’ and two-star ratings that we get. And then every morning at 6, we have an e-mail going out about every negative comment that this business dealt with from the previous day.
“As a company, today we get more than 20,000 reviews a month, and our average reviews are up to 4.7 to 4.8 stars. We follow up on every 1 or 2. Every one of those comment has to be responded to. The why’s, the root causes. I don’t care if you had a bad night – why were we in that situation in the first place? Were we adequately staffed? Was the associate properly trained? When you trace back to those root causes, that’s when you make leapfrog improvements.”