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Girl Meets Dress: Our sector didn’t exist, so we had to be adaptive

Girl Meets Dress has achieved ecommerce success with its designer dress rental service, but it effectively created its sector, which meant founder Anna Bance had to be adaptive to the challenges she faced.
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We’re at the Internet Retailing Conference today, hearing various discussions on the impact the online world has had on shopping. Girl Meets Dress founder Anna Bance was among the first speakers, insisting on the importance of being an adaptive retailer.

Indeed, the term adaptive is almost one of those buzzwords that get thrown around in business without ever really meaning much, however, Bance has truly demonstrated the essence of being adaptive with Girl Meets Dress.

The first reason for that was that the concept for her business didn’t exist. Offline hire of dresses had been in operation since the 1960s, she said, but there was no online offering with a next-day delivery.

“I thought I was going to build it as a normal ecommerce site,” Bance said. “Everything looked pretty standard at launch – browse, order what you click, the dress comes in box with return label and customers send them back.

“We had to be really adaptive, as I quickly realised it was not going to be that easy. Customers were not realising that we were hire. We had to adapt. I had to find a balance between being a retailer and a booking system.”

Bance needed to take into consideration that any dress being hired was for a special occasion. With everything from weddings to proms to Ascot to black tie catered for, customers rent dresses with a particular date in mind; they’re not casually browsing as they may do on ASOS, she explained.

Given the confusion of the hiring concept, it was necessary to add additional awareness throughout the site and the ordering process to make it absolutely clear, eliminating any room for misunderstandings.

“I realised the importance of tech. It wasn’t just going to be normal shop, there was a lot of back-end programming for every dress. Every single dress has to log booking, availability and dates in between for dry cleaning, so there are days that people can’t use it,” Bance detailed. “The back-end system, which was difficult, logs every dress to be sure customers are getting the dresses.”

Aside from confusion between hiring and buying dresses meant Girl Meets Dress had to be adaptive yet again, with a challenge around converting people into customers.

“We were getting lots of drop-offs, so we had to eliminate that. Customers had never hired before, so the main thing was getting them to do this. They were apprehensive, but we got them to hire and needed to add express checkout to convert customer. Once they hire once, they keep on hiring,” said Bance.

Given the breadth of events and styles Girls Meets Dress supports, truly no two customers are the same.

Bance compared to those who hire once a year for things like Ascot and others that can hire on a far more regular basis – as a result, there was a need to be adaptive with what considerations go into sending email correspondence.

She added that dresses can be hired for preteens right up to those approaching 100, with one 56-year-old customer contacting the business to explain how happy she and her 94-year-old mother were with the service.

“I also didn’t know it [Girl Meets Dress] was going to be so focused on the middle of nowhere. But people that live in countryside who go to lots of events don’t have anywhere near to find dresses ­–  we became a port of call for people. That meant we had to adapt customer service and adapt to their lives,” Bance continued.

“Then they started to send us pictures. Every customer is going to a special event, so they feel amazing. They want to share pictures and experiences with other customers.”

Deciding how the business would generate its revenue was another way that Girl Meets Dress was able to be adaptive. As a result, dresses can be hired on a pay-as-you go basis, seasonally, or customers can become members for a monthly fee – though there was a launch for an £900 annual fee for unlimited dresses, which Bance quickly found became “chaos”.

“Making customers happy led us into different revenue channels,” Bance said. “From they day they order, there will always be questions. We have live dialogue with every customer – live chat best thing we ever did, now every day lot of business is done with customers communicating.”

Further methods of being adaptive were demonstrated with Girl Meets Dress launching a showroom to showcase its wares, which includes an Uber tie-in for transport, while a partnership with W Hotels has the hospitality brand hire dresses on behalf of guests, who are able to wear them for free.

“In terms of the sharing economy and my business, I know it’s on the up. People said when Girl Meets launched, it was too early,” Bance admitted.

“Now the market is saturated so much, but millenials have less to spend. I know it’s not easy, big retailers can’t change every day. But if we can adapt, I think customers will keep being excited.”

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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