Ann Taylor shoe showroom

Ann Taylor has begun quietly testing a number of programs that will evolve the business beyond a store’s four walls.

The company is experimenting with faster shipping speeds, showrooms, rentals and personalized services in a bid to aggressively court customers who are adopting new ways of shopping.

“Both [Ascena Retail Group president and ceo] David Jaffe and [Ascena brands president and chief executive officer] Gary Muto are really encouraging us to test and try many different ways of meeting our client,” said Ann Taylor senior vice president and general manager Julie Rosen. “How and when and where she’s shopping is so different today and we want to ensure we’re everywhere she is.”

The retailer’s taken note of what many digitally native brands have gained successes and built full businesses around, beginning with the concept of rentals and try-before-you-buy models driven by companies such as Rent the Runway, Rocksbox or Bag, Borrow and Steal.

The new Infinite Style by Ann Taylor rental program gives the non-committal shopper the option of test-driving the retailer’s clothing before potentially buying.

Infinite Style, which lives on a web site separate from the regular Ann Taylor domain, rolled out for a soft launch in early October. Customers pay $95 a month to test run as many items as they want, three pieces at a time. If they like the items, they can purchase them. If not, they send the items back. The retailer takes care of the dry cleaning and shipping both ways. Infinite Style’s assortment is currently a distilled version of what one may find on the regular Ann Taylor web site.

“We did a lot of research and we learned subscription services used to be really occasion based,” Rosen said.

That’s shifting, she added, where there’s real interest among consumers looking to be able to rent pieces for not only evenings and special events but also the office and weekends. That shift could prove Ann Taylor’s boon. The retailer’s point of differentiation, Rosen said, will be in offering its own brand unlike other players on the market with multiple line options.

The retailer’s also not the only one to see the potential in the rental business with DSW Inc. announcing in late September its desire to test shoe rentals. Chief executive Roger Rawlins told WWD at the time the program would be tested in one or stores in Columbus, Ohio and would likely be on higher-ticket items.

Rawlins echoed a sentiment shared by a number of more traditional players in the space when he said, “If all you’re doing is selling shoes, that’s the same stuff that [competitors] have at a better price; eventually they’re going to figure out how to match your price and take your customer. You’ve got to have different reasons to why you exist.”

Even within the rental space, front-runners such as Rent the Runway continue to iterate. Rent the Runway a few weeks ago revealed a tiered subscription program and a lower-priced option, coming in at $89 monthly for four pieces. Chief executive and cofounder Jenn Hyman told WWD in October that the company was seeing multiple visits to Rent the Runway stores where they can swap pieces in real life and noted a similar finding to Ann Taylor when she noticed customers coming to Rent the Runway not just for special occasion items.

“Women are using the [Rent the Runway] stores to get dressed in the morning for work [and] to get dressed in the evening for their events,” Hyman said. “The stores are just bustling with subscribers who use the stores as an extension of their closet and that’s game-changing.”

For Ann Taylor, rentals could prove a good litmus test for new ways of selling to its existing customers, while also snagging new ones in the process. However,  it’s not the only tactic its launched to more aggressively snap up new customers.

“We’re definitely optimistic and I think it’s going to be a great new way for this 63-year-old brand to do things in a new and exciting way,” Rosen said. “We’re trying and testing a lot of different things.”

Within that list of new and different would be the rollout of a personal styling service program and joining ShopRunner, a two-day free shipping membership program.

The company in early October also began a test of a showroom concept within its Westfield Garden State Plaza store in New Jersey. Within that door, Ann Taylor has dedicated showroom space for its footwear and one for suiting. The concepts, like other showrooms in the market today, allows for people to try product on with the help of a stylist and then have it shipped to their homes via free two-day shipping. Shoes in particular, Rosen said, have served as a good entry into the brand, which is why the Garden State location offers the fullest breadth of the company’s footwear assortment.

The retailer will closely track how the showroom does through holiday with the eventual hope of bringing the concept out to other markets, Rosen said.

“We just need to innovate in 2017,” she said. “We are a brand that’s 63 years old and we can’t just stay where we’ve been.”

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