Weddington Way's shop at Banana Republic on Grant Ave. in San Francisco.

Gap Inc. acquired Weddington Way, a digital retailer for Millennial women who are getting married, in 2016. Now, a year after the two companies tied the knot, Weddington Way is leveraging the resources of the global fashion giant and opening 600-square-foot to 1,100-square-foot shops in Banana Republic units.

Founded in 2012 by Ilana Stern, a Stanford MBA graduate, Weddington Way was created as a platform to connect bridal parties digitally to make the bridesmaid dress shopping experience easier, collaborative and, hopefully, fun.

“We launched as a tech platform, a place where friends could shop together no matter where they lived,” Stern said. “Customers were loving the collaborative shopping experience, but one of the big problems we weren’t able to solve was giving them the ability to touch and feel and try things on.”

In 2015 and 2016, Stern tested Love Pop Shops in Chicago, Manhattan’s SoHo and Los Angeles. “Once we got the pop-up shops going, the results spoke for themselves,” she said. “Our satisfaction scores were through the roof.”

Following the acquisition by Gap, Stern said she realized that “there were a lot of great synergies across the brands.”

Weddington Way shops have opened in Banana Republic units in San Francisco, Dallas and Atlanta. Shops in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle will bow in the next two weeks, while Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Orange County and Costa Mesa, Calif., haven’t been scheduled yet.

More showroom than store, where inventory consists of samples, the Weddington Way shops gives customers hands-on to access to the brand’s expansive collection of dresses. “The customer is not walking out with the dress,” Stern said. “She’ll go back on the virtual online showroom on the web site and share with the group.”

Banana Republic operates about 800 stores, Stern said. “There won’t be that many Weddington Way shops, but there are definitely going to more. We’re figuring out how many more stores. What’s interesting with Weddington Way is that when you think about the group of friends — the bride and four bridesmaids — you only need one member of the group to come to the store, try dresses on and drive up conversion. This isn’t a strategy where we’re going to have 500 Weddington Way shops.

“We’ll focus on key markets that can address the majority of our customer base,” she added. “The majority of our transactions happen online. We have our eyes on 20 to 30 markets right now. We’re a nimble start-up in terms of testing and learning. We use a lot of data.”

Stern will look at where Weddington Way ships the most orders. “We also use a variety of feedback mechanisms to collect data on where customers want to see us open a shop next,” she said. “Rapidly growing Millennial populations are among the criteria we think about when considering potential brick and mortar sites.”

Weddington Way has evolved since its inception from a seller of third-party brands. It spent two years testing its own brands then transitioned to selling solely its own merchandise only beginning in 2014. By cutting out the middle man, Weddington Way has been able to produce $400 dresses for less than $200, Stern said.

If there’s opportunity beyond bridal, Stern wants to be ready. Lest Weddington Way get pigeonholed as a bridesmaid-only company, Stern said,”our focus now is on creating special occasion dresses with bridesmaids in mind. Our approach to design and styling comes from the contemporary world. We’re doing modern dresses with a lot of detail attention, pleating and cuffs.

“We’re getting a lot of women buying special occasion dresses,” Stern said. “We’re also getting brides coming in for other occasions around the wedding [such as rehearsal dinners]. We’re seeing that naturally happen. We’re not making any dresses specifically for bridal.”

At the Weddington Way shops at Banana Republic, Stern said, “We’ll host experiences that might have nothing to do with selling a dress. We may do a flower arranging class, a 10-minute blowout or a Sugarfina event. There will be a variety of experiences that are highly relevant to our customers.”

Asked about the possibility of opening Weddington Way freestanding stores, Stern said, “Our own stores — anything is possible. Now, everything is focused on this partnership.”

Stern considered Weddington Way’s status as a brand in Gap Inc.’s portfolio. “If we were a stand-alone, we’d never be able to open the number of stores we are opening,” she said, adding that Gap Inc. executives, including president and chief executive officer Art Peck, and Sebastian DiGrande, executive vice president, strategy and chief customer officer, have been accessible.

“There’s this interesting dichotomy of big companies struggling to get out of their own way and innovate, and small companies that have potential but don’t have money,” Stern said. “We’re in a unique position. We’re a small, agile and nimble brand, but with really amazing resources and expertise available to us. They’re [Gap Inc.] giving us the right combination of autonomy and support to flourish.”

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