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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead. This past season, we took you inside the C-suite of big organizations to find out how senior leaders prioritize innovation. Usually we take a break for the summer, but today we’re back with a bonus episode. And it’s all about the big business of weddings.
Ah, yes weddings. Maybe you go to a few a year for family and friends — or you’re in your 20s and that’s your whole summer. But weddings in the COVID-era look a little different. Some weddings were cancelled and rescheduled, sometimes more than once; for others, guest lists were cut to the bone. Social distancing guidelines in many states pushed many couples to stage “minimonies” to celebrate their marriage, sometimes with a Zoom link as a substitute for in-person celebrations. In fact, according to a Weddingwire survey of 7,000 couples, 43 percent of respondents who had a wedding in 2020 added a streaming component.
Just as celebrations have adapted, the way people shop for wedding wear also had to shift. As a non-essential business Pennsylvania-based wedding retailer David’s Bridal had to temporarily shutter its retail locations in 2020. To continue serving customers the team at David’s Bridal ramped up its online initiatives.
And, this isn’t the first time that David’s bridal has sought to emphasize the digital experience. After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018 and undergoing a restructuring to reduce its debt, the company invested in digital as a way of differentiating itself from independent boutiques and designers. That digital foundation allowed the team to move fast during the pandemic. Now, brides can schedule a video appointment with a stylist. They can see and purchase dresses via an AI-powered texting program. The company also launched an augmented reality feature that enables brides to visualize what a dress will look like in their wedding venue.
Now, with rising vaccination rates and updated CDC guidelines, the wedding industry is roaring back to life. That’s right — passed apps, uncomfortable dress clothes, and open bar dance floor escapades are just around the corner.
We sat down with David’s Bridal CEO Jim Marcum to discuss how he’s navigating the future of the wedding business. That included building an omnichannel experience to help brides shop from anywhere and industry trends to look out for in 2022. We’ll be back with Jim after this break.
How is a century-old organization like Ford Motor Companies exploring new ventures in today’s market? InnoLead’s Charting the Future event will host Scott Griffith, the new CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles and Mobility Businesses, as he discusses the structure of new business ventures, working with regulators, and the competitive landscape for autonomous vehicles. Charting the future will be held online on June 9th through the 11th, and it features other leaders from Disney, P&G, IKEA, and more. To learn more, visit innovationleader.com/charting2021.
Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back, with Jim Marcum, CEO of David’s Bridal. Jim took the reins as CEO in the summer of 2019. During our conversation, Jim shared how the company adapted to serve brides during the pandemic, and which digital shopping trends will persist in the post-COVID world. He also discussed how innovation is structured at David’s Bridal, including why the company’s Chief Marketing Officer oversees the company’s technology efforts.
Can you tell our audience how innovation fits into your role as the CEO of David’s bridal?
Jim Marcum: It plays a significant role. I joined the company and have been here coming up on two years, and we’ve really been under a real transformation plan in March. You can’t do that without innovation.
Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been at David’s bridal for two years. One of those years was a pandemic year. We hear from a lot of folks at different companies that the last year has accelerated innovation or digital innovation. Can you talk about some of the challenges that your team faced when there was a shift and gatherings weren’t allowed and how your team pivoted to continue to provide services for those brides looking for dresses?
Jim Marcum: There were so many pivots that were made, as I said. Before, we, as a leadership team really put the stake in the ground to say, “What’s David’s bridal look like for the future? And what was our transformation roadmap going to be?” You know, we were well on our way. We were feeling good about the progress we were making and everything. And then here comes COVID. And so the next thing you know, we’re pivoting, shutting stores.
At one point we were furloughing thousands of employees. And then we just jumped right back on to a march of how to not only we get the stores open, but how do we reach out to her quickly where she is? Certainly she was facing a lot of issues. Weddings were getting postponed. There was a lot of consternation or concern on her part. You can only imagine the stress from that side of what is she going to do? We really spent a lot of time on how are we going to serve her? I have to tell you to accelerate our innovation dramatically. And as we really challenged ourselves on how to do that.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned the idea of meeting that bride where she is. Can you go a little bit deeper into that? What are some of the specific initiatives that help empower that meeting the bride anywhere idea?
Jim Marcum: It’s interesting, one of the big challenges we had and faced and one where we were driving to is really getting to her earlier in her inspiration than we’d ever done before. We call that the front end of the funnel, when she’s starting to inspire her wedding. When she’s thinking about where her venue is going to be in that type of thing. All of that, obviously, was impacted by COVID. Right? So we were already on a march and developing tools to help her in that journey. So we were developing what we call logbooks and checklists and those kinds of things. Because the days of the old where David’s bridal at first really gained its marketshare, where you bought a bridal magazine, folded back corners, and went into a store.
Those days were gone. She was online. And when I say COVID helped us refocus and accelerate. We knew she was shifting online, we already had an ecommerce platform, but how did we engage whether from texting to AI? We put in the whole virtual stylist program. We launched and trained up over 300 virtual stylists within a couple of weeks, and really launched virtual appointments so that we could help her in our process.
And what was so unique about David’s and we were very different, is we had our own dedicated supply chain. So we had product. We had products sitting domestically ready to go — hundreds of thousands of dresses. There were so many different touchpoints via social media channels, AI technology, and those kinds of things that it really helped us kind of reorient ourselves and refocus on her.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned AI and other newer pieces of technology. How are you finding technology elements that match the use cases that exist? And then how do you decide to implement them?
Jim Marcum: So we had a chatbot program, right, we had call centers that were pretty much staff that weren’t staffed at that time seven by 24. Today, we are — 365 days a year. <ost of our engagements with customers were through texting, and chat, but we need to bring some real intelligence to it. And we really need to take the friction out of the system where they can engage and transact via texting.
It’s amazing that close to 80 percent of all in customer engagements now are when you when you talk about the digital side, are via that whole text.
Kaitlin Milliken: So are they punching in numbers to make their purchase, as well as look at dresses, all on text?
Jim Marcum: They can look. They can enquire. You could shift over to a live operator real quick. They could leave their conversations open, you know, we were able to create the technology to leave those conversations open. So the call center person was there and can hold as many as 20 conversations at one time. So in many cases, somebody would start a conversation and then several hours later get back onto it, and it would be seamless, right? So we did those kinds of things. But more importantly, then pulling back, we wanted to get her to be able to see the product. So we even launched augmented reality, so we started taking some of our key styles and how do we go out and really bring those dresses to life so she could bring them into her room at home. You know, and look at the quality of the dresses and those type of things and we see you know, an incredible lift when you do that with the customer because the confidence level is there with her. We started developing tools so that when she was online and she was saying, “I like these styles.”
She still demonstrated when our stores were back open that she wanted to go into the store to try it on. So we started developing tools that would take all that information, curate it for the stylist. So when she came in, we knew who she was. We knew who she was. We knew what she liked. And we could just start with a robust process, right and really raise the level of our engagement and service with her.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. You mentioned this was a fast process, which makes sense, given the global shift we all lived through. But it’s still a process that sort of involves a testing element. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were working with customers when these programs were getting started, before rolling them out? How did you get a sense of what folks were looking for what the reactions were to these ways of shopping that were new to your team?
Jim Marcum: Part of this transformation, and I know everybody says it, but we live it every day, we put the customer right up in the front of everything that we do. So that to us became like our Northstar, to kind of give you a sense of that our EL team, leadership team today, we scrape every negative comment that comes out the entire company through any channel. We scrape it. It’s on our phones every morning. And I mean, that’s my six o’clock in the morning ritual is looking at the one stars or two stars, and really peeling them back to the root cause.
What are they saying? Because the customers will tell you what’s working, what’s not working and those kinds of things. And, and I think when most companies lose their way, they lose sight of that, as we sit here today, just to give you an example. You know, we run 4.7/4.8 stars in our reviews consistently day in and day out. And we will have over 20,000 reviews a month — unheard of.
Our NPS scores over the last 24 months, we’ve had NPS scores as high as 72 to 74, which is unheard of, and even our call center in our NPS scores have hit as high as 90.
I made our chief marketing officer, head of all technology. She is our CIO. Everything that we do internally is focused on how does it impact the customer? The friction points with the customer? Are we getting the proper messaging? And how do we unlock it. And so we have teams today that do a lot of innovation. They innovate, we test very quickly, we will roll and then we’ll fast follow. And because of that, we’ve been able to make just significant leaps in this whole digital strategy. And I gotta tell you, when you can create that environment. It’s infectious, right? Because now, the whole organization wants to participate. And if we keep that Northstar in front of us every day, we’ll make the right decisions. The customer tells us.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned that you have different teams working on innovation, I wanted to get a little bit more insight on that. Do you have a dedicated innovation team or a digital team? And who are they reporting to? Is it that CMO/CIO role? Is it directly to you?
Jim Marcum: This was something that was important to me because I wanted to put the stake in the ground and we wanted to move very quickly. We have nobody that leads into innovation individually. We own it as an ELT. We talk about it as an executive leadership team. Every week, and every time we meet on progress that we’re making, and those kinds of things and we set those objectives together.
We do run an innovation lab, where we can kind of innovate and test and validate, spend time on “okay, what is the next evolution of whether it’s your websites or tools and those kinds of things?” But what’s important to us is we created that culture at the top. And then we have our chief marketing officer has reporting to her a chief technology officer, a chief digital strategy officer, and those teams are really innovating.
Because one thing that we do do is spend a tremendous amount of time as to how that translates to the customer. So it’s not just about “Okay, we launched the new sexy tool.” It’s about how’s it gonna affect us in the stores? How’s the messaging online on the website? Does it create a seamless experience? It’s really my role to create that culture of innovation.
Kaitlin Milliken: Do you have any tips for teams that work at large organizations on how they can create an environment that allows for new ideas, allows for experimentation? Or does it have to come directly from the ELT or the CEO?
Jim Marcum: There is no question when it’s led from the top. The progress that you make and your ability to really drive it is, let’s call it, so much easier. And I know a lot of organizations I’ve seen a lot of organizations where you put somebody in that role of innovation officer. And by the way, I commend them for it. So don’t take it wrong, right. But when you do that, it’s a tough role in order for them to be successful. They have to build the credibility. They have to build the partnerships. They have to break down the walls. That’s a tough role for a chief innovation officer where they have to do all of that. And oh, by the way, go convince the ELT or the CEO to buy-in. I mean, my advice: They have to be those partners cross functionally. But more importantly, they’ve got to be able to articulate for the brand for the customer translated as to what these initiatives mean. If you can do that, effectively, it would defy logic to me why a CEO would not embrace it.
Kaitlin Milliken: I do want to drill in on more advice in a second. But first, I’d love to look ahead a little bit. So 2020, a very strange year for weddings, as you said. I think that weddings may come back in a huge way in 2021 late, 2022 as more and more people get vaccinated. What are some trends that your team is preparing for looking ahead into that post-COVID, more folks are vaccinated future?
Jim Marcum: We feel very optimistic. I mean, there is this pent up demand where weddings have shifted back. We see it with our customers and the data from our customers. So we are really looking forward to the next 12 to 18 months. We think it’s going to be incredibly robust. I have to tell you, what we’ve got to make sure of is that doesn’t breed an arrogance with us. Because we need to continue this drive of innovation. You can’t paint all customers with one brush. We’ve seen the whole evolution of minimony, right? Where our customers said, “You know what, I want to make it official. I’ll have a very small wedding in the backyard.” she’s buying a dress, she wants the photos and the memories and those types of things. And at the same time, she’s saying, “And I still plan on having the celebration when I can bring the entire family together.”
But for us at David’s, it’s more than just “Okay, yeah, we’re owed a certain amount of business.” We are absolutely trying to change the way we engage with her and continue to drive that innovation. We really want to be way up front, when she first gets engaged. We want to be much more than just the wedding dress or the bridesmaids dress. We want to be the occasion dress. The mother of the bride dress. We want to be all of her events.
We launched a loyalty program in the midst of COVID. In December. We’ve already surpassed over 300,000 members. You probably sit here and say, “How many times is somebody going to get married in their life?” Well, that’s not it at all. It’s about her entire event. It’s about her ecosystem, it’s about her engagement party or bachelorette weekend. It’s about her rehearsal dinner. It’s about after the wedding ceremony, if she wants to get into a more casual, relaxed dress to go out and dance right or go on the honeymoon. And we want to be there for her.
I mean, part of our loyalty program is we’ll give a free vacation, a honeymoon. We’ve already had close to 30 people hit that threshold already. And we’re learning more and more from her more, directly from our customers. And we have more information about her to you no desires than we ever had, right? Which will make us smarter, which will make us better, which will make us be able to service or even more.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned minimonies as one of those trends that’s likely to persist. Are there any other trends that you’ve seen in the last year that your team definitely thinks, “Oh, we need to continue to provide these services. This will be something that people want even though the pandemic is closing.”
Jim Marcum: There was a period of six weeks when COVID first hit, because we were not a quote unquote, an essential central retailer, right? And which put an inordinate burden on us. Now you try telling a bride that her wedding’s not essential, that’s a different story. You can imagine the emotion, but when we closed our stores and went dark for a period of time as we learned what we needed to do to be able to operate safely, we did see that massive pivot shift into our ecom model and the virtual model.
As I said before, what’s interesting is when the stores open back up, we get close to 90 percent of all brides coming into our funnel, they go online and the majority are still booking an appointment. So as the stores open back up, they shifted back over to the appointment. But what we’ve learned is that whole virtual I don’t think there’s anything that we’ve done that will go away. It helps serve her wherever she wants to be served. We still have a tremendous number of brides coming in setting up a virtual appointment, talking through different styles of what not only their dress looks like will look like, but how do they want to curate their bridesmaids and their bridal party? And then ultimately, okay, I’ll book an appointment, and I’ll get into the store with my party, where I’ll set these appointments up. And so it’s become just a tool that has become invaluable.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And this is my final question for you, Jim. I’m sure a lot of our listeners want to know how they can get their CEO on board with whatever they’re working on. Do you have any closing tips for innovators who are looking to work more collaboratively with the CEO at their company?
Jim Marcum: Anybody that’s put in this role has an enormous responsibility. That partnering role in everything is critical, but most importantly, the transparent communication where you can sit in gee whiz and I use that term and collaborate with your CEO. I think that’s what you have to create. And so you need to create that informal environment where you can conversationally, sit down, talk about what’s real, right. And in reality of where you are, and think it through cross functionally.
Because what I always find in companies that kind of lose their way a little bit from my history, what I find is they become very stovepipe. And a lot of people will have great ideas on initiatives, but in the grand scheme of things will be bespoke initiatives that affect one organization or one pyramid within the company. And when you look at it on the grand scale it is not well executed, cross functionally through that organization, anybody that’s in this role of innovator needs to be able to create those conversational dialogues in those visions of the wise, the opportunities and those kinds of things.
Kaitlin Milliken: Thank you so much, Jim, for taking the time. I know we’re also hitting that spring summer period, which is going to be incredibly busy for your team. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jim Marcum: Thank you.
Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. I’m your host, Kaitlin Milliken. I edited and wrote this episode with our new intern, Collin Robisheaux. Welcome, Collin! Special thanks to Jim Marcum for sharing his insights. For more bonus content, subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts or check out our website, innovationleader.com/podcast. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.