When people weep at weddings, they’re mostly overcome with joy. But a few secret tears may also be shed by the bridesmaid who has shelled out $300 from her first-job wages for a dress that makes her look like a stuffed sausage—and a shiny, chartreuse one at that.
As a Stanford MBA student in 2010, Ilana Stern spent a lot of time listening to the woes of brides, family, and friends as they shopped for flowers, caterers, and clothes for the wedding party. Stern concluded that weddings, while wonderful, are also occasions of “acute consumer pain.”
“And where there’s acute consumer pain, there can also be a business opportunity,” says Stern, who was a buyer for department store chain Bloomingdale’s before she came to Stanford.
Stern used her time in business school to lay the groundwork for Weddington Way, the startup she founded shortly after graduating. The San Francisco-based company opened for business in 2012 as a hybrid e-commerce and social media site tailored for engaged millennials. On the “collaborative shopping site,” as Stern describes it, brides can share opinions about dress options and other wedding fare with their bridesmaids and family members.
Stern had found from her many conversations with young Stanford classmates that one of the most prominent pain points of wedding preparations was the choice of the bridesmaids’ dresses. Women’s stories about these dresses are an entrenched part of American folklore and film. If you’ve seen “27 Dresses,” a movie about a serial bridesmaid whose closet is crammed with ghastly getups she’ll never wear again, you get the idea.
So Stern chose the bridesmaid’s dress as her first retail offering on Weddington Way. A bride signs up on the site, and creates a shopping cart called a Showroom where she can display her favorite choices from the hundreds of bridesmaids’ dresses offered by the company. She also signs up her bridesmaids, who can then post detailed comments on each of the possible styles and colors. More later about how it works, but Weddington Way’s sales record suggests that the company is gaining traction.
The company sold more than 25,000 dresses in 2013, and had shipped the same number by the midpoint of 2014, Stern says. It just raised a $9 million Series A round led by Javelin Venture Partners of San Francisco, which contributed $4.5 million. Previous investors Battery Ventures, Felicis Ventures and Trinity Ventures joined in the round.
“We ended up writing the largest check we’ve ever written,” says Javelin partner Alex Gurevich. The $125 million fund usually invests $2 million to $4 million in young companies, he says.
Weddington Way is now expanding into accessories, such as earrings and purses, with the aim of becoming a full-service “wedding concierge in the cloud,” Gurevich says. He estimates the U.S. market for bridesmaids’ dresses alone at $2.5 billion, while bridesmaids’ accessories exceed that at $3.5 billion. If the company adds table settings, decorations, linens, and other items for the wedding venue, it can tap into an additional $10 billion market, Gurevich says.
Here’s how Stern evolved her approach to online retailing. She saw an opening for a new kind of bridal outlet that matched the way young women today live and keep in touch with their friends online. While their grandmothers might have made the rounds of numerous stores along with their bridesmaids and mothers, millennial women are more likely to live at a distance from family and friends, Stern says.
“Consumer behavior had already changed, and the industry hadn’t caught up with it,” Stern says. Young engaged women tend to be busy with commitments such as jobs and school, leaving less time to collaborate on the choice of a bridesmaid’s dress, she says.
“The default option is, the bride would just choose the dress and tell everybody to buy it,” Stern says. “Otherwise, it was just a logistical nightmare.”
With the Weddington Way Showrooms, Stern hoped to create a convenient, single location where the bride can review her bridesmaids’ opinions on each of the dress candidates, and find solutions to please everyone. The site now features more than 1,000 dress styles from 17 designers, and some styles come in as many as 60 colors.
The wide variety makes it possible for the dresses to be somewhat customized for each bridesmaid. For example, some brides choose a basic color family, such as peach, and encourage their bridesmaids to pick the shade of peach that goes best with their skin tones, Stern says. The same can be done for the cut of the dress. Many of the designers offer similar dresses with a range of neckline styles, for instance. So a bridesmaid may have the chance to wear the one that works best for her silhouette.
“Brides want a consistent aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean they want all their bridesmaids in the exact same dress or shade of color,” Stern says.
Wedding purchases are among the most intensely collaborative of consumer decisions, and young bridesmaids are among the consumers most likely to collaborate through social media. Stern’s early focus on the bridesmaid’s dress was also a strategic business decision for other reasons. That dress is often the first decision a bride makes, and it comes as much as a year before the wedding, she says. It frequently determines the color palette for many other wedding items, from the groomsmen’s ties to the ink on the invitations. “It’s a beachhead into all other purchases,” Stern says. Weddington Way is now offering ties and men’s suit pocket squares that are color-coordinated with its bridesmaids’ dresses.
Stern sees her largest rival as the bricks-and-mortar giant David’s Bridal. But she envisions Weddington Way as a challenger in the way that Amazon competed successfully with more traditional book retailers such as Barnes & Noble. Gurevich recognizes the same kind of disruptive potential in the apparel industry, citing online shoe retailer Zappos, men’s clothier Bonobos, and Warby Parker, which sells eyeglasses on the Web.
Gurevich says pulling bridesmaids in as part of a shopping collaboration on Weddington Way sets the company up for strong word-of-mouth marketing, from referrals to repeat business. “Bridesmaids go on to be brides themselves, or to be bridesmaids in other weddings,” he says.
Well before he was part of a VC firm investing in Weddington Way, Gurevich played a supporting role in the company’s development. Stern, his Stanford classmate and friend, sought his advice about her budding idea.
“My initial question was, how are people going to make such a personal decision without trying on the dress?” Gurevich says. “Can this be taken online?”
Part of the answer may be found in Stern’s choice of dress styles, which tend to have a combination of full skirts and Empire waists—trendy, but also an easy fit for most women.
“They’re not too clingy,” says Aimee Tittlemier, who was one of the earliest brides to try Weddington Way as she prepared for her June 2012 wedding in Thousand Oaks, CA. At the time, she was working as much as 12 hours a day for a mortgage company, and none of her four bridesmaids lived nearby. She created her Showroom on the website, and signed up the bridesmaids—three sisters and a friend. There, she assembled options for them all to discuss. Soon after a bride signs up, she and her bridesmaids receive emails from personal stylists at Weddington Way who offer help and advice. The company also sends fabric swatches for the dresses under consideration.
Tittlemier (pictured above) says she also used the website’s messaging function to shoot out a single reminder to all the bridesmaids each time she needed them to take actions, such as sending in their measurements or commenting on colors.
“This was a way for us to connect online and have that shopping experience,” Tittlemier says.
Once she had chosen the clothing designer and the color, she encouraged each of her bridesmaids to choose the specific dress style they liked best. She would have been happy if they had varied, but they all picked the same one.
Tittlemier says she had looked at dresses at David’s Bridal, but found fresh styles on Weddington Way that reminded her of a fashion icon, the actress Audrey Hepburn.
Stern began the business with a few design companies she’d met with while still at Stanford: Dessy, Alfred Angelo, Donna Morgan and Lela Rose. The site now features a dozen more designer partners, including Alfred Sung and Badgley Mischka.
Prices range from $99 for a Dessy matte jersey wrap dress to $550 for a strapless cocktail dress in silk satin chiffon from Watters.
Weddington Way’s designer partners make their dresses in standard sizes, but only begin work when an order is received. Bridesmaids can take the dress to their own seamstresses if they need alterations. Stern says Weddington Way now has an algorithm that detects dress orders that may not fit well. A company stylist then contacts the customer to offer help before the order goes through.
“Our return rate is less than 3 percent,” Stern says.
The company is also mining its data to better meet customers’ needs, she says. One result was the launch in May of its private dress label, also named Weddington Way, which is now one of the website’s 17 designers. It’s a response to comments from customers who didn’t want to wait the 8 to 12 weeks it takes for Weddington Way’s outside designers to fill a dress order, Stern says.
Those brides who are planning their weddings on shorter timelines can pick among six Weddington Way styles in six colors. The ready-to-wear dresses, in a ribbed cotton fabric called faille, can be shipped in two days, and can be returned or exchanged, Stern says.
Priced at $150, the private label dresses now make up about 10 percent of sales, she says. The new in-house line has expanded the customer base rather than eroding the sales of Weddington Way’s outside partners, Stern says.
The company has now raised a total of $11.5 million from venture firms as well as individual backers that include Bonobos founder and CEO Andy Dunn, Nixon founder Andy Laats, Lululemon Athletica board member RoAnn Costin, and former Gap CEO Bob Fisher. Stern had worked with Dunn as an intern at Bonobos.
Weddington Way will use its new capital infusion to invest in its private label, expand its 20-person team, build out related mobile apps, and continue to seek the customer feedback that steers the company’s decisions about new product offerings, Stern says.
If all goes well, Stern also wants to reduce the number of unflattering bridesmaids’ dresses that clutter the backs of closets.
“About 70 percent of our customers tell us they plan to re-wear the dress,” Stern says. “We want to get that number higher.”
Wedding party photo © Michael Hurd
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