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Adapt or Die - Stop Trying to Control Your Customers!

February 27, 2013
             
By

Robbie's Proposal to CorieLast week my engaged daughter Corie, who lives in Houston, came home for a visit. She had various reasons for leaving warm and sunny Texas to arrive in snowy New England, one of which was to do some wedding dress shopping with me and a few of her bridesmaids-to-be.

This was my first experience shopping for a wedding dress because I had worn my mother's when I got married nearly 30 years ago. I had always envisioned my daughters wearing the same dress at their weddings, but alas, that's not going to happen with Corie. I'm not a shopper, nor do I care about clothes and dresses. So already having a dress meant "Yay! I don't have to go dress shopping!"

But for Corie, shopping for and choosing her own dress was non-negotiable. She did humor me by taking a look at my 1957 Priscilla of Boston wedding gown and even tried it on, but it was not the dress she had dreamed of. Or should I say, it wasn't one of the dresses she had pinned on Pinterest!

The Shopping Starts Online

Most young brides-to-be start their wedding gown search online these days. They browse through designer websites and pin the styles they like to their Pinterest boards. With the help of the Internet and her iPhone, Corie was well prepared for our shopping excursions. She called wedding boutiques in the area to see if they had the specific dresses she already knew she wanted to try on. While none of them had all of the exact dresses she was interested in, they all told her that they likely had some very similar ones, so she made some appointments.

Online Meets Brick and Mortar

Our first stop was a small boutique only a short ride from our house. My job was going to be to take photos of her wearing the dresses and keeping track of which was which on my smartphone by noting the designer and product number. (I had a system all prepared using the Evernote app, but unfortunately my phone decided not to cooperate, so I did it the old-fashioned way with paper and pen!) At the store we were greeted by a couple of youngish women who escorted us to the back room. We asked if it was okay to take photos and they said of course it was. To me, all the dresses looked amazing on her, but Corie usually found something she didn't like. (It took me awhile to even be able to tell the differences between the various styles, because I hadn't been stalking Pinterest the way she had been!) She did end up liking one as a strong contender that was within our budget.

When we got back home she reviewed our photos and also looked up the model product numbers online to see how they looked on the designer's website. Corie wears a very small size so she tends to swim in the sample sizes at stores, which makes it difficult to see exactly how they'll look on her. Still not ready to say yes to the dress at the first shop, we went to another boutique in a different town.

When we arrived, we were welcomed by a prominently placed sign that read "NO PHOTOS OR VIDEOS ALLOWED." Huh? We just assumed after the last place that it was common practice to take them, and it had also been extremely helpful. The owner (who was around my age) explained that the designers didn't allow them to let people take photos because people could then just copy their designs. This of course didn't make any sense because the designers themselves have photos of all their dresses on their own websites. So we started our visit with a feeling of distrust for the owner.

Controlling the Information

At this point we were all pretty annoyed and even felt like walking out, but we had driven some distance to get there so it seemed silly to leave. Corie chose a few dresses to try on, but when we asked for the product numbers of the ones she liked, the owner said she doesn't give those out. She didn't want people to look online and find them cheaper somewhere else. In other words, she was going to try to force us to buy from her.

While we found that pretty offensive, the next place we went to was even worse. This owner (slightly older than I) didn't allow photos or videos, nor did she provide product numbers. But she took things even one step further by not even letting us know who the designer of the dresses were!

I managed to sneak in a few photos when the owners of these two boutiques weren't paying attention (Corie didn't even know). I didn't agree with their rules and if they weren't going to provide us with any information, I was darn sure going to at least get some photos of the dresses that were possible contenders. In fact, I think I wanted to take them more out of spite than anything else.

Adapt or Die

I understand that these boutique owners feel they're getting squeezed out by the Internet and they're scared of losing their businesses. But they're also getting a lot of their business through the Internet. In other words, it's a two-way street. They will in fact lose their businesses if they don't adapt. There is simply no way you can continue to try to control your customers' experiences in today's online world.

Before the Internet, brides-to-be might have gone to one or two bridal boutiques and chosen from the selection offered at whatever price they were quoted. But that's not going to fly with today's Pinterest brides. You can try to control them all you want, but all you're going to do is piss them off. My daughter said she'd never buy from either of those boutiques that refused to be transparent. To her they came off as mean and controlling.

On the other hand, she (and I) would happily go back to the boutiques that encouraged her to look online and gladly provided all the information she needed to make an informed decision. This would be true even if the prices were slightly higher. (And brick-and-mortar store owners should emphasize the personal services they can provide that you can't get online.) Store owners who understand that ultimately it's the customer who is in control, and don't try to tie their hands, will be the ones who end up winning in the end. Those who refuse to adapt will go the way of the dinosaurs.

Jill

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Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of Jill Whalen High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 jayne terry said:
Hi Jill,
I'm from Boston and my older son is getting married this April. Although I did not have go bridal gown shopping, I did have to find a Mother-of-the-Groom dress and that was not easy.

One of the women in my office recommended Julie's Bridal in New Bedford. I hate to drive but this drive was definitely worth the trip. There are iron bars protecting the windows of Julie's Bridal and I'll say no more. The store has an amazing inventory of bridal gowns and dresses and they don't charge for alterations. Julie lets you take photos and will match anyone's price. She isn't that "Adapt or Die" because she doesn't have a website....but I guess when you have her inventory and pricing you can rely on "word of mouth."

Good luck to you and your daughter!
 Wendy Roe said:
Hi Jill!
Having gone from the web marketing world to wedding photography, I couldn't agree with your 'adapt or die' theory more. Except in our world some photographers are still fighting giving clients digital images if you can believe that. Pinterest is HUGE in the wedding market and has directly led to clients for sure. Thanks again for writing this article...it's just fun to see web marketing and weddings come together!

Congratulations to you and your family!
 Jeff Ostroff said:
Jill, what you describe here is exactly what we have been writing about since 1997 on one of our sites, the Bridal Tips web site. We have an entire section on our site about this. You only saw half the scams the bridal shops pull. They also yank the labels off the dress so you cannot see who the manufacturer is and go buy it cheaper. That is a violation of the FTC's Textile Act. I have gotten tons of angry emails over the years from arrogant and irate bridal shop owners cursing me out for speaking out about these scams, and trying to justify how they are sick of tire kickers who come in, take pictures, then have the gown made cheaper elsewhere. It's a federal crime but they feel perfectly justified doing it. As Corie plans her wedding, have her check our other chapters, as we reveal all sorts of scams from all sorts of wedding vendors. They are worse than car dealers, make sure she reads our tips, it will save her thousands, plus the stress. P.S., my cousin in Boston got her dress from Priscilla. Have fun planning. From one of your 2003 Tampa students, Jeff Ostroff
 Eric said:
I feel for the store owner. The problem is, women go into these stores to see how the dresses will look, pick out the one they want, then leave the store and find the lowest cost online boutique. There is absolutely zero loyalty to the brick and mortar. You tell me if your daughter would have bought a dress she liked in the first store you went to that allowed photos if there was a better price online? I'm pretty certain she wouldn't have given two hoots about that brick and mortar!

These online boutiques don't have nearly the overhead that the brick and mortar does, not to mention the service or inventory carrying costs. And you are sure to find an online store owner,a stay at home mom, who just wants to earn a few extra dollars for spending cash...not to live off of. So these stay at home moms cut the prices and are willing to earn 1 to 5% profit on each sale. They don't care, all they have to do is create a drop ship PO to the supplier and collect their money. This is what is bad about the online boutiques. It will eventually drive the brick and mortars out of business. And then where will the young, frugal ladies go to see how these dresses look on them?!
The brick and mortar stores deserve to make a fair profit and the online boutiques should not be allowed to put so little into each sale while drastically cutting the prices.

There is only one group of people that can stop the undercutting by the online boutiques...and that is the manufacturers. They should promptly pull the product from the online stores that are choosing to lowball everybody else. You guys can be mad at the brick and mortars for not allowing photos all you want...but I see exactly why they do it and they have good reason.

If you want an example of this on a bigger scale, just look at the "dumping" that other countries do to the US for various products. It is ILLEGAL to offer products for sale for little to no profit. Our government controls and stops this from happening by issuing sanctions and tariffs on the offending countries. Who does this to the online boutiques that are dumping on the brick and mortars? Manufacturers: wake up or your point of sale brick and mortar will go out of business....and what bride to be ever buys a dress without trying it on first!
 Diane "Torka" Aull said:
I don't know of too many women who will look their absolute best in a dress straight off the rack. (In my case, my mother hand-made my dress, so it was custom-fitted -- and custom designed -- from the get-go, but not all of us are blessed with moms as talented as mine. My son certainly isn't! ;) )

Emphasizing the fact that they can offer alterations -- especially last-minute alterations in the event the bride to be loses or gains a few pounds in the weeks leading up to the Big Day -- is a service any wedding gown boutique can offer than no Internet based retailer can match. If I were a bride again today (heaven forbid!) I would probably go to a local boutique based on the availability of alterations alone. Price be damned, this is MY DAY and I want to look FABULOUS. Unaltered off the rack is NOT "fabulous." :)

You are so right that it's a case of "adapt or die." But then, you know, it's always been that way. Competition has been part of business since the very beginning. Any business owner who thinks they can prevent customers from checking out the competition is delusional.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jane thanks for the recommendation! Next time Corie is in town I'll see if she's interested in checking out that boutique.

@Wendy, thanks!

@Jeff yep, that one boutique had the labels ripped out. I'll let Corie know about your resource site, thanks!

@Eric, I agree that I feel sorry for the boutiques and I also realize that tons of young ladies are definitely trying on the dresses and then getting them somewhere else. But they're going to do that no matter what at this point and that's not going to change. As I said in the article, the boutique owners are the ones that are going to have to change. They're going to have to figure out their own unique selling proposition (USP) or they won't be in business for much longer.

@Diane, yep, but the Internet has made it a zillion times easier to do that competition checking!
 Corie said:
@Eric, RE: "You tell me if your daughter would have bought a dress she liked in the first store you went to that allowed photos if there was a better price online? I'm pretty certain she wouldn't have given two hoots about that brick and mortar!"

Hi, I'm Corie. The answer is, yes, I will buy from a boutique. I am NOT buying a dress online. Most designers will not sell directly online, and I would never buy a dress I didn't physically see. But what I won't do is buy from a boutique that refuses to tell me which designer I'm trying on, or tells me pictures aren't allowed when she HAS pictures on her website. Don't lie to me, provide a customer service, and I'll shop with you. It's pretty simple.
 Helen Driscoll said:
HI Jill, Hi Corie,

Lots of the boutiques take your order, put them through to the manufacturer, and the manufacturers gang produce as the orders accumulate. The factories are offshore, and the factories have been knocking off their dress clients! A number of Asian websites are being sued by the US for trademark infringement and forgeries. (The dresses are sold as designer dresses but through offshore websites well below retail.) Another reason to be careful about who you order from online.

I've gotten a few calls from people who ordered their wedding invites from offshore companies and they were trying to salvage the disaster they got in the mail. Couldn't help them - the invites were printed.

Another option is bespoke designers. A number of small designers make the dress for you. Some really gorgeous work!

There is also a healthy aftermarket for wedding goods- like Recycled Bride. Some brides buy a dress, change their mind.

Best to you!

Helen
InviteSite.com
 Helen Driscoll said:
Forgot to add: Priscilla of Boston shut down completely end of 2011... Both the dress line and the boutiques.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Helen, I wonder if that will make my dress more valuable. (If only I can figure out how to get the stain out of it that we found when Corie tried it on.)
 Boonog said:
Torka nailed it. "Service" is the key. My husband has been in car sales for years. There are plenty of people who get an online price, then come to the dealership and take up several hours of his day to drive and learn about the car before leaving and buying it online.

Even when he detects this, he still gives them the same level of service he would to anyone. It pays off, too. Because he is so service oriented, many of the would-be online buyers convert and become his customer. It's not uncommon that they discover they really didn't know all they thought they did, and they are grateful to have had the guidance he gave them. Then they come back and buy another car from him a few years later.

These dress boutiques should focus more on selling the attributes of personalized service instead of just the dress - assuming they do. When you factor that into the selling price, the extra local cost could end up being a deal.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Boonog yes indeed. That's exactly what it's all about! Rather than having a warm fuzzy feeling about these old fashioned boutique owners we came away feeling like we needed a shower!
 Bobette Kyle said:
Hi Jill,
I've been lurking the last several years and keeping up with SEO changes through you. Thought I'd pipe up here, since online wedding resources is what I'm into these days. YES, YES, YES I agree with you and Corie 1,000%. We all have to deal with changes in technology one way or another and deception or selfishness is never the answer.

I understand it's tough on all kinds of retail owners who have more customers coming in just to look. But it's the way of the world today--they have to deal with it (just like a lot of us have to deal with Panda and Google's changes. lol). There are some good suggestions in the comments. IMO, they need to understand their product is not the dress, but the dress PLUS the advantages and services they can bring to their buying customers--the dress, alterations, maybe some little free something, etc. If they think of themselves as part of a team to take part of the work load and stress off their clients' shoulders (which the Internet can't do), they can better communicate how they add value versus a dress in a box with no service attached. There have to be many more like Corie out there who would never buy a dress online. The shop owners who are hoarding information and putting shackles on their potential customers are loosing business to those who are open and helpful.

Corie, I saw your picture on Pinterest. You are beautiful. Congratulations!
 Bobette Kyle said:
Umm, make that "losing" business, not "loosing" it!
 Jill Whalen said:
Hey Bobette, long time no see! Glad to see you're still a faithful HRA reader. Thanks for chiming in!
 Jeff Ostroff said:
My cousin in Boston who I mentioned earlier got her dress from Prisilla, got it virtually a week before they shut down in December 2011, then we attended her wedding at the Mandarin Oriental at Prudential Center the weekend of the big blackout in March 2012. She was very nervous, knowing they were closing, but Prissila was honest to the end. Many of the complaints we received from our site visitors mentioned that many bridals stores went under and took their money. Also, many of these online sites selling bridal gowns are not approved by the manufacturer. We've heard complaints that they claim to be authorized, but they just put in your order through someone they know who has an authorized store, or they get poor quality counterfeits from China, with numerous mistakes, then there's no recourse when it goes south. Also got many complaints about bridal shops selling dresses as new when it's more than obvious seeing the dirt on the bottom and makeup on the lace that it was used. But they make you pay by check in full first so god luck getting your money back. They also lie about how long it takes, so make sure you order at least 4 months ahead of time, and don't try to make any changes once the order is turned in.
 Jeff King said:
As someone who has brick and mortar retail stores and a successful website, I can tell you that probably 50% of all customers will gladly use your expertise and knowledge and then buy elsewhere if the price is a $1 less. I can definitely understand, if not condone, the stores that are worried about photos being taken and designer names being written down, because that's all the consumer needs to bypass the brick and mortar stores and find the absolute cheapest on-line site---one that probably doesn't have a showroom or even a warehouse as they may drop ship dresses straight from the manufacturer. We've adapted by becoming increasing an on-line company, because we couldn't match these prices with the high rent and overhead of a brick and mortar. If the average consumer does not value service and convenience, bridal shops may one day go the way of book stores. Remember how nice they were to lounge around in, read free stuff and have a coffee...and then go to Amazon to buy?
 Shari McConahay said:
Love reading this article. It really is time for people to get out of the dinosaur age of retail. I bet if you could show them case studies that you could gain a new client!
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jeff you're certainly correct. But there's nothing that the boutiques can do about that other than adapt or die.
 Helen Driscoll said:
Yes but people want to touch and feel. We send one free sample and paper swatches of our designs - but all local customers end up coming in, just to see. Just to make sure they didn't miss something. Even though we are an online company, we have a showroom for customers who come from as far as 50 miles away. (our business is wedding stationery) Wedding reviews are huge. Check out Wedding Wire for local services. The reviews are pretty good.

@Jill - Your dress may become more valuable. Vintage is so hot now - bit still trending 50's. 60's and Great Gatsby. Unless you were Goth. Steam Punk weddings are hot too :)
 Earl said:
Jill, I am an owner of a bridal shop and found your blog interesting. Here is another point of view. The internet is killing our business. The girls look on line then come to the shop and "Showroom". The phrase means they use our products and our staffs time to try on dresses they intend to buy online. Then they have us do the measuring for the online store and come back with the dress to have us alter it. The practice in killing our business. The online store does not have the cost of inventory, the wear and tear and devaluation of inventory, staff or the upkeep of brick and mortar. They also do not have all the sales taxes, state and federal taxes to pay on their employees. The girls use all our resources that are not provided on line then buy elsewhere. You wonder why shop owners may be a little protective? Now you know.
 Jill Whalen said:
@earl I understand that. Which is why your business needs to adapt or die.