By  on December 2, 2008

There's no such thing as a crisis in Lilly Pulitzer’s world.

With a brand as bright and colorful as this, what could possibly shake things up? A global financial meltdown? Nope. Sept. 11? Nice try. In fact, the period following 9/11 was a successful time for Lilly, according to company president James Bradbeer Jr., who noted that consumers were perhaps turning to Lilly’s bright colors subconsciously in an effort to turn their own moods around. Those very colors are what have defined this brand since its inception 50 years ago.

The retail story of Lilly Pulitzer, now based in King of Prussia, Pa., began in 1958 in Palm Beach, Fla., when socialite Lilly Pulitzer started selling orange juice from her husband’s groves at a little stand. She created her own line of colorful dresses to hide the juice stains that inevitably splattered her clothes, and they were noticed by such fashion icons as Jackie Kennedy. To this day, they are considered timeless, and their devout consumer following is as large as ever.

Fast-forward to 1994, a decade after Pulitzer shuttered the business and retired, when two friends and entrepreneurs (and longtime fans of the brand) James Bradbeer Jr. and Scott Beaumont bought and reintroduced the brand under parent company Sugartown Worldwide Inc. One of the first steps? Figuring out an effective retail strategy, since neither executive had an extensive retail background.

“Brad and I no way pretend to be great retail experts,” said Beaumont, chief executive officer. “When we formed the business, we knew we were going to need help with our retail side, because one of the things we found early on was that this customer likes to shop in a specialty environment, where she gets good service and sees a high assortment of Lilly [merchandise].”

There are a couple of reasons for that, he noted. Lilly is a specialty brand in terms of distribution, the products offered and how consumers think about it. But the customer likes to see Lilly with a lot of assortment because it gives her confidence that her party dress will be unique — even if she’s in a place where many other people may be donning Lilly attire. “A lot of people who wear Lilly congregate with others who wear Lilly,” Beaumont said. “And Lilly herself always told us that, when you assort the line, think in terms of people going to a party where every person wants to be in Lilly.”

He also pointed out that Lilly consumers often will want a skirt in six different patterns — or they’ll want the same pattern on six different pieces of apparel.

After opening its first company-owned retail shop in Key West, Fla., in 1996, Beaumont and Bradbeer made a decision to begin introducing “signature stores” — now called “Via Shops” — to enhance the focus of its retail presence. Via shops are run by independent retailers who apply and submit business plans to open up their own store, much like a franchise. Pulitzer management has an evaluation process to determine which retailers and plans are best suited for the job.

“The people we chose had to really know this brand, have retail experience and they’d have to know their community,” explained Beaumont. “Lilly is very much a social-networking community. People who seek this brand out to do a signature Lilly store in their town are probably at the epicenter of their community of Lilly Lovers.”

Beaumont and Bradbeer chose to open Via Shops in locations, such as Palm Beach, Fla., Nantucket, Mass., and Westport, Conn., where competition was light and the brand was in demand.

Today, the company boasts 75 signature stores nationwide.

In 2004, Pulitzer launched a two-pronged approach to retail that includes company-owned and -operated units.

Beaumont said the idea behind the company-run stores was to give the fi rm the tools necessary to know their customers better. And they also realized that their newfound knowledge and skill set led them to assist the signature stores.

“We could put out a great catalogue, get customers to our Web site, and help our independent retailers with signage,” he said. “These successes within our own stores helped our independent retailers to do a better business, too.”

He added that they wanted some stores to have flagship characteristics — larger square footage, different merchandise and higher foot traffic — like the current store at the King of Prussia Mall.

In May, Lilly opened its first Manhattan store at 1020 Madison Avenue (3,600 square feet) along with a shop in East Hampton, N.Y. Most recently, a Boca Raton, Fla., location was unveiled. The total company-operated store count now sits at 21 locations in nine states. Average square footage of these stores is 3,800 square feet, with an employee count of about 10.

In general, retail prices average $150, but merchandise ranges from fragrance bottles at $48 to cocktail dresses for $428.

And their performance? “Most corporate stores do well in excess of $1 million per door, and overall growth in the retail channel will be 9 percent this year,” said Beaumont.

Besides its Via and company-operated shops, the collection also can be found at stores, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. WWD reported in March that the brand has made a push internationally: Bradbeer said at the time that the brand had launched at Harrods in London, marking its foray into Europe. The Lilly Pulitzer collection at Harrods includes women’s and children’s apparel.

While Lilly does have a couple of retail spaces under consideration for 2009, at this point the brand is staying mum as to potential locations. But has gone fully transactional. As of last month, Lilly Lovers from anywhere can purchase their favorite items from the brand’s Web site.

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