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Ashley Stewart To Open First Store Since Emerging From Bankruptcy

James Rhee took on the role of CEO at women's clothing chain Ashley Stewart during a period of retail turmoil. Here's a look at the turnaround.

Things were not looking good in 2013 when James Rhee arrived as executive chairman and CEO at Ashley Stewart, a clothing store with a special focus on plus-sizes for  African-American women.

A former high school teacher who went into private equity, Rhee was originally part of the board that was overseeing Ashley Stewart as it faced a second bankruptcy that threatened the shuttering of the 189 stores it had at the time.

As Rhee detailed in a Harvard Business Review article, he had no experience in fashion or retail, but he believed in the value of Ashley Stewart in an under-served market. He resigned from the board and became CEO. He gave himself six months.

While Seacaucus, NJ-based Ashley Stewart now has 89 stores across 22 states, Rhee is still in the CEO seat and is looking to careful expansion. The first test of that goal begins in March in Newark, NJ — the first Ashley Stewart location in over three years.

We talked to Rhee following his appearance on a panel discussion on digital talent recruitment and development with the CEOs of Macy’s and Walmart at last week’s NRF Big Show.

Ashley Stewart CEO James Rhee (far right) shared the NRF BIg Show stage with the CEOs of Walmart and Macy’s.

GeoMarketing: How has Ashley Stewart changed in the three years since you’ve been CEO? And how has your focus evolved?

James Rhee: None of this was intentionally or originally supposed to be commercial. It was all personal. Why did I do this? The same reason why I graduated from college and I went and taught high school: I am very passionate about people.

And I’m particularly passionate about our customer base and the employee base. We cater to a lot of women, minority women, could use some advocacy sometimes in the commercial space. Not that they need it, but in life, as you know, oftentimes it’s nice to have an advocate sometimes in your life. Right? That’s the mission of Ashley Stewart.

Initially, I thought I would come in quickly following the bankruptcy, save as many jobs as possible, and then I would go back to Boston.

But as the company continued to grow, I ended up staying. As you think about that, where the initial intent and cause was not business, it was not technology, it was not financial — it was more survival and personal. That’s a huge every part of the culture, and every part of the strategy that we put in place over the last three years.

As the company has moved on from past challenges, has the use of retail technology and social media played a more central role?

I’ve talked about the idea that I never want Ashley Stewart to be known as the most technologically savvy company. That’s not what I want this brand to be known for. I will use technology to enhance certain things.

Remember, when I came here, it was desperate. Thinking about your question, and I have to smile, because not only did we have no wi-fi at corporate, the stores were still on 1997 DSL dial-ups.

So we have had to enhance technology quickly. It’s something I’ve never lost sight of. The bottom line is that for us, it’s not technology for technology’s sake. Everything we do has to augment and enhance and deepen our relationships with our store employees, who are spread out miles and miles away from us, but more importantly, our customers.

How does that approach to connecting customers and staffers at the stores work in practice?

Here’s how we look at it: We view the Ashley Stewart brand like a person. Picture Ashley Stewart as a person just talking to all of her friends.

Number two in terms of our stores, and we’ve got a long way to go, we don’t have the resources of very, very large companies. What’s focused on making our stores lives better in terms of minimizing tasking, and making that more automated, but freeing up their time to engage. However, automation is about complementing, not replacing, sales associates.

The idea is to free up associates’ time to allow them to engage with customers. We want them to have fun, to talk, and listen to customers’ stories. Our customers spend hours in the stores; this is not an in-and-out experience. That’s why our events business is exploding.

What kinds of technology are you looking to?

We are investigating point-of-sale technology and working very seriously at upgrading those systems. At the end of the day, our opinion is that the way the world is going, taking money from somebody will end up being an unnecessary task. Mobile payment is expanding across retail. That’s where everything’s going, right? We’re looking at those types of options, but I haven’t found anything that I’ve liked enough to settle on.

In terms of managing the stores’ local digital presence and driving discovery by people using their mobile phones to find an Ashley Stewart outlet, what do you use?

We use Google, Google Maps. We have local Facebook Pages as well. We’re investing a lot in education and training. We’re empowering our field group to take the lead and own their store, really own their business and the marketing around it, particularly with Facebook Pages.

We take care of all the local Google advertising from corporate. That’s a pretty specific skill set. We use mobile messaging a fair bit and that’s all localized as well.

I never want it to lose its neighborhood feel, it has to have that. The idea of being global and using technology to amplify the message so other people in other communities can enjoy what’s happening in Detroit, while offering people in New York a similar, but unique experience.

Have you explored the use of location technology, whether it’s beacons for in-store and geofencing around stores?

We work with RetailMeNot on geofencing, and they’ve been a good partner. There’s some smaller companies we’re beta testing with as well. Our mobile ad partner is Persio, which is now owned by [loyalty platform] Clutch

They’ve been very good partners for us. We are on Salesforce’s Demandware platform. We are heavily investing in personalization tools online, both Demandware’s and also with Evergage. Our theory is that when all these personalization tools are combined effectively with geotargeted marketing, we can amplify the individual, local messages, that’s the perfect triangle. That’s what we’re trying to do.

As you look around at the retail space, with so many major brands closing or consolidating store locations, do you plan any store expansion plans?

Yes, we are looking at expanding. In fact, we’re opening our first “lab store” in early March in Newark, New Jersey. It’s the first store we’ve opened since emerging from bankruptcy and a reconstituted company.

What is a lab store and how is it different from a regular outlet?

By “lab store,” that means it’s a lot of our learnings over the last three years, if you think about it. When you come by, you’ll see it incorporates our philosophy that we believe that Ashley Stewart is the hub of a social commerce ecosystem.

Secondly, you’ll see that we will once again have a major events calendar in 2017.

Generally speaking, we use social media to amplify our contests and our model searches and our partnership with CBS Radio with the Carson Daly Young Breast Cancer Survivor Concert. We generally break records pretty quickly on entries and engagement. You’ll see us really ramp up our social event, social engagement efforts in 2017. One of the things that we did is that I recruited in a very senior person from the Miss Universe organization, and she’s heading up that effort. So there’s a lot for us to be excited about this year.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.