David’s Bridal is the nation’s leading bridal retailer. From 2006 to 2007, two-thirds of all brides shopped at a David’s Bridal store for their weddings.
When I came to David’s Bridal as director of strategic planning in 1999, I found a business that had been driven by operational excellence and supply-chain efficiency: low cost to operate, low cost to customer, high volume, focused on delivering practical, tangible value to the customer. While all of that was commendable, I questioned whether it was a sufficient roadmap for future success in this highly emotional business.
The original David’s Bridal, a typical bridal shop, opened in 1950 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. An entrepreneur from Philadelphia purchased it in 1990, and, with a high school friend, he came up with the concept of mass merchandising bridal apparel. He opened a second store in 1991. Today, there are 277 David’s Bridal stores in 46 states and Puerto Rico.
Mass merchandising bridal apparel, born out of the idea of providing a distinct advantage to the customer, revolutionized the industry. The industry norm then (and now still) in this primarily mom-and-pop business is a store that carries samples in one or two sizes, with the bride ordering her dress and waiting three to nine months for delivery. The disadvantage to the customer is not only the stress of waiting for delivery but also the worry of not knowing what the gown she ordered will actually look like on her (and whether it could be altered to look the way she thought it would when she ordered it).
The David’s model was to carry hundreds of styles from numerous designers in every size in every store, and at affordable prices. This “David’s Bridal difference” was designed to provide a customer with the ability to try a gown on in her size and know exactly what it would look like on her, combined with the ability to purchase it at a great price and take it home the same day.
The concept, however, took substantial time and effort before it proved to be profitable for the company. We purchased a number of designers’ businesses and vertically integrated to manufacture their gowns (and dresses) ourselves. This gave helped us maintain the affordable pricing (while controlling and enhancing the quality) and the value proposition for the customer.
‘The lifetime value of each customer was not limited to the months between the engagement and marriage.’
Competitively, this also allowed us to better weather the threats from copy-cat manufacturers and new entrants into the industry. Controlling the entire supply chain allows us to offer continuous innovations/new styles with a faster time-to-market—another advantage to the customer.
But while we appeared successful, I unearthed two pieces of information about our customers early in my career. One was that, although we advertised in every available channel brides went for information, word-of-mouth recommendations continually showed up in our customer research as one of the top reasons customers came to David’s Bridal. With this in mind, I made a change to the timing of our customer satisfaction survey.
Instead of randomly selecting customers in our database, we began measuring satisfaction at different stages of the shopping cycle, from early in the process to closer to wedding date. We recognized three important things:
- There were different drivers of satisfaction at each stage.
- The organization was better at some stages than at others.
- To keep a high level of customer referrals, we would need to continually improve our service offer at each level.
We also made what one vice president here calls “epiphanies.” The first came as the result of a major research study we did with bridesmaids. We found that, of the four bridesmaids in the average wedding party, three, on average, were single!
Because weddings among groups of friends tend to spark future weddings, this meant that one wedding event would soon become three more weddings with 12 bridesmaids, which would soon become nine more weddings with 36 more bridesmaids. The epiphany was that every customer who walked in the door mattered, not just the bride, even though she was the major decision-maker for that particular event.
Moreover, the lifetime value of each customer was not limited to the months between the engagement and marriage and her willingness to recommend in the future. It was also related to the customer’s willingness to return for future special occasion needs, even with many years in between: from taking her first communion to being a flower girl to attending her high school prom to becoming a bridesmaid to being a bride to being the mother of a girl taking her first communion.
Our organization had grown through its product leadership to become a destination not just for weddings but also for all special occasions. This meant that we would, or could, be growing with our customers through each of their most special moments.
The next epiphany came as the result of conducting a particular research study quarterly over a few years. The study showed that more than half of all brides getting married in a year will have visited a David’s Bridal store sometime in the past—for a prom dress, someone else’s wedding or some other special occasion. Another thing it showed was that a “good” rating in customer satisfaction was not good enough to insure that the customer would return for her wedding.
The last epiphany came from doing more extensive research into the reasons behind the customers’ satisfaction ratings. We discovered that when the customers used emotional terms—feelings—to describe their ratings, it was a far better indicator of their willingness to recommend than when their reasons were more practical or tangible: product, price and process.
Our own research made us aware of what Jim Barnes said in his book, The Secrets of Customer Relationship Management: that the emotional elements of how you make customers feel are far more important drivers of customer satisfaction than are the elements of the corporate ecosystem based differentiators of product or price/value leadership. This is even more the case when the category has a strong emotional element to begin with, as exemplified by a letter I received last week from one of our customers. Here’s an excerpt:
Being a bride is something all little girls dream about: the flowers, the tears, looking into your loved one’s eyes, and especially shopping for that ONE dress that will make you THE most beautiful bride.
My vision is to help fulfill dreams and create beautiful memories.