Most noted for its fashion, fit, and value proposition, this urban plus-sized women’s clothing retailer is making a name for itself in the apparel industry. Customers shopping at Urban Brands’ Ashley Stewart stores are not shy about who they are. Mostly college educated homeowners with middle to upper-middle incomes, these divas know they can come to any of the company’s 215 nationwide stores and find fashionable clothing that fits their budgets and their bodies. 

“Our stores cater to sizes 12 through 26,” said Laura Weil, CEO. “We know our customers care about how they’re groomed—their total look from head to toe. They’re very loyal to our brand because they know we’re an authority on fashion made just for them.”

Staying connected

Urban Brands is the umbrella under which the Ashley Stewart brand of clothing, accessories, and jeans lies. One of the unique qualities of the company’s Ashley Stewart-branded stores is the pace at which floor plan and product mixes are refreshed. 

Every two weeks, the front end of each store changes, and a new concept is rolled out. When Weil started with Urban Brands in 2008, the strength of the company’s visual merchandising surprised her, but it also made her hopeful for the future of the Ashley Stewart brand. 

The executive team in charge of such decisions includes Steve Newman, president of Urban Brands; Marla Minns, general merchandise manager; Genese Anthony, vice president of stores; and Ellen Seitter, head of visual. Combined with in-store managerial teams that go above and beyond simply running a store, each Ashley Stewart location is handled like a well-oiled machine. 

“When you walk into our stores, it’s obvious they are well merchandised from a visual perspective; it would be highly unusual for you to walk in and see anything amiss in the store,” said Weil. “The standards of our operations are very high, and I attribute that to the leadership of the executive team and the training that’s gone on in the stores for many years.”

Many Urban Brands/Ashley Stewart associates, merchants, and planners are also customers of the company, which ensures that decisions made at every level accurately reflect the customer base. “When your associates reflect your customer base, you’re able to live and breathe your customer all the time,” said Weil. “That’s key to keeping in touch.”

Urban Brands also launched AshleyStewart.com in 2008, and the site’s popularity continues to grow. Using the site, in-store merchandise testing, and e-mail promotions as research tools, the company prevents itself from straying too far away from what its target audience wants. 

Best in class

The goal of Urban Brands is to be a best-in-class retailer, not only from a fashion perspective, but also an operational perspective. The company’s headquarters in Northern New Jersey give its merchants unlimited access to vendors in New York, but beyond the domestic front, Urban Brands’ merchants go to Europe on a regular basis to research the latest trends. 

“We do what bigger companies do: our merchants go to Europe at least twice a year to shop the markets,” said Weil. “They also go to major fashion shows in the US and frequent The Market in New York to meet with the vendor community.”

The company’s executive team comes from all walks of the retail fashion world. Gathering that expertise under one roof enabled Urban Brands to streamline its inventory and generate cash more efficiently. One of the biggest operational changes in the past year came from selling one of the company’s divisions to position Ashley Stewart as Urban Brand’s main focus.

“The Puerto Rico-based Marianne brand was losing money,” said Weil. “Although it was a shame to have to sell it off, we reduced our overhead and payroll costs and focused on Ashley Stewart, which has a lot of US growth potential.”

Urban Brands also looked at technology, investing in new POS, planning and allocation, and finance systems to streamline behind-the-scenes processes. Part of the technological strategy included looking at what more could be done with the Ashley Stewart Web site to support brick-and-mortar stores. 

“The best retailers know how to take advantage of their e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores to give customers the ultimate in customer service,” said Weil. “You want to be a brand that consistently gives your customers what they want when they want it, whether online or off.”

Measure of success

Women’s apparel, and more specifically women’s plus-sized clothing, took a greater hit in the recession than other apparel categories. However, from Weil’s perspective, the hard hits of the past have only given Urban Brands a chance to improve profitability, which it has during every month in 2009. 

“We expect to be in the black in 2009 despite the worst consumer recession we’ve seen in our lifetime,” said Weil. “But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and rest on our laurels.”

Without the consumer consistency they once had, retailers are struggling to figure out what to do next when planning for the future. Not only do they have to get the fashion right, they have to estimate the inventory levels, maintain brand identity, and translate a sense of value to consumers. 

“Handling all of those pieces through the economic downturn has been our number one success of the past year,” said Weil. “A close second would be the new talent we’ve brought in to create a stronger team of associates.”

Looking ahead, Weil said the company plans to position the Ashley Stewart brand as a denim destination for curvaceous women. With its history in providing fashionable plus-sized apparel at reasonable prices, she said continuing to expand the company’s denim assortment—with prices starting at $29—is not only timely, but also a natural for the brand to further distinguish itself in the apparel industry. 

“There are so many companies out there selling the same thing, but our stores are unique,” said Weil. “To be distinctive and unique is where it’s at today, especially in a tougher retail environment. If you can stand out and people know you because of that difference, you know you’ve succeeded.”