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Connecting with the Heart at Ashley Stewart

posted by Professor Marie Driscoll, CFA

Ashley_Stewart_New_Jersey.jpgTwo weeks ago I took the drive to Newark, New Jersey to celebrate the opening of Ashley Stewart’s new concept store, coined “The Ashley Stewart Lab.” This is the first new Ashley Stewart store since 2013, when then private equity investor and Ashley Stewart board member James Rhee changed hats and joined the company as CEO and began the reinvention of Ashley Stewart.

Four years later, with two bankruptcies behind it, Ashley Stewart is well positioned to benefit from the significant opportunities of the women's plus-size apparel market. According to NPD, approximately 67 percent of women wear a size 14 or larger and yet the $20 billion plus size apparel market represents only about 17 percent of the women’s apparel market.

Ascena Retail (owner of plus size retail banners Lane Bryant and Catherine’s) sizes the market at $40 to $50 billion and growing at a four percent clip. The rapid acceptance of the body positivity zeitgeist is encouraging young millennials and GenZ larger sized females (as well as their older sisters) to buy fashion apparel is another growth driver. Retailers of all kind (subscription, rental, digital and brick & mortar) are taking notice.

James_Rhee-1.jpgI first met Rhee at an LIM College C-Suite Speaker series two years ago and I was immediately attracted to his passion for the Ashley Stewart women. What he saw early on was the connection, the authentic and meaningful brand experience of community that Ashley Stewart offered to its shoppers, oftentimes, head of the household women with many worries, from which Ashley Stewart provides reprieve.

“At the core, these women are coming to Ashley Stewart, not to buy clothes, but to connect and be social,” Rhee commented. His role switched, and his mission became to be their advocate.

On many levels the new Springfield Avenue Marketplace store is the fruition of Rhee’s mission. The 4,500-square foot corner location is replete with an inviting dressing area (black and white with fuchsia accents) with a chaise lounge in a multi-mirrored movie star-like lounge for hanging out and showing off and just being a girl. The offerings are fabulous, from intimates to accessories, denim to dresses, Ashley Stewart has it all, plus with streaming digital Ashley content, the digitally savvy consumer can connect and upload and share her Ashley Stewart store visit on social media.

Rhee’s mission to advocate for and empower the Ashley Stewart women had earned the brand continued loyalty as reflected by its 750,000 Facebooks and 201,000 Instagram followers @byAshleyStewart. Given the palpable loyalty of this customer, it’s not hard to envision unlocking additional sources of revenue via Ashley Stewart-brand appropriate product and brand associations.