Technology At Its Best

It would’ve been considered science fiction just a few years ago, but these days it’s possible to bring a family member or friend to a bridal fitting, even if he or she lives thousands of miles away.
    And of course it’s not sci-fi, but something most of us have at least heard of: Skype and Facetime.
    “Skype and Facetime have really been a wonderful option to allow brides to interact with relatives or friends that are unable to be at the appointment,” says Amy Berend, owner of Bridal Boutique in Lewisville, Texas. “They are both a huge contributor to closing sales.”
    Of course this is only one example of the way bridal retailers are using today’s technology to enhance the customer experience. Read on for six creative uses of cutting-edge apps and sites that all salons should integrate today.

1. Skype and Facetime. Getting a mother’s or best friend’s seal of approval and reassurance, even if she is not physically present, can close a deal, says Natalie Bauer, who co-owns Bella Bianca Bridal Couture in Chicago with her sister, Melissa Russell.
    “In Chicago we have a lot of brides who live here but their families are not and they want this to be a process their loved ones are part of,” she says. “It certainly helps brides come to a decision. It also helps if the bride is up against a time frame – and this technology does help put the bride at ease.”
    Skype and Facetime aren’t foolproof, however.
    “Sometimes they’re not as thrilled as the bride about a gown so she doesn’t buy anything, although ultimately it does lead to a happy bride,” Bauer says. “And we feel at least we’ve done everything we can to bring this together.”
    Bella Bianca brides don’t use Skype and Facetime only for the initial purchase, but throughout the fitting process, too.
    “When a gown is finally fitting as it should, customers often call someone to get a final opinion,” Bauer says.
    This also means the store’s employees can include the person on Skype or Facetime in their short tutorial on how to bustle the gown.
    Bridal Boutique sees brides using Skype or Facetime fairly regularly – at least one client on a busy Saturday will request it, according to Berend. And while it does slow down appointments a little, “it facilitates sales as it helps the bride feel complete when all decision makers are present,” she says.

2. Multi-use tablets. Bridal Boutique introduced three tablets in January 2015, with the goal of smoothing the transition to closing a sale. It started with a point-of-purchase app, which allows them to run a credit card while with the bride rather than leaving her.
    Never leaving the bride’s side means there’s less chance of her changing her mind or delaying the purchase to another day.
    Having the tablets immediately at hand saves time in two ways: Since brides aren’t changing their minds they’re not coming back for a second appointment when they’ve thought things over; and employees aren’t walking across the store to reach the cash register.
    The tablets also have another use.
    “We can take pictures with them and show the girls details of the dress they can’t see, like the back,” Berend says. “When their moms take pictures with their phones from their chair they’re at a terrible angle. It’s much better with these tablets, and you have a bigger screen than on a phone, too.”
    Bella Bianca employees approach this from the opposite direction and use the tablets before women have even tried a gown on. They pull up photographs of what’s in stock before fetching everything from the rack, which saves a lot of time and keeps the employee with the bride.
    “It goes a long way for fostering a dynamic between the bride and the stylist,” Bauer says.
    In addition, it allows the stylist to show the bride images of gowns in Bella Bianca’s second store. Gowns can be transferred between the stores overnight, usually.
    “It helps us offer more options and lets customers access both stores’ inventories,” Bauer says.

3. Video. Last year Bridget Nussie Moore made two videos – one short and one longer – to introduce new brides to her store, K&B Bridals in Bel Air, Md.
    “Some brides are absolutely terrified about coming in to try on a dress so if they see this video, they are not walking in blind,” Moore says.
    Once she’d made the video – she hired a local videographer friend and it cost around $100 – she put a teaser on Facebook offering to e-mail the video to anyone who was interested. She sends it out ten to 25 times a week.

4. Online booking. To encourage future brides to visit their store, Natalie Bauer and Melissa Russell have launched online booking. Customers can request their preferred dates and times online, then the store will contact them via e-mail to book it.
    “Brides are very busy and are trying to get into our store while working,” Bauer says. “The days of booking via phone are limited.”
    And as soon as a client has been into the store once, employees make sure to chat with her about her preferred method of communication.
    “It also makes things more efficient so we’re not spending our working hours leaving messages because during our working hours our customers are mostly working,” Bauer explains.
    Using online booking, phone and text “has definitely improved things for us and has increased how quickly we can react,” she adds, “and the brides feel we are being attentive to them.”
    The trouble with contacting clients via text, e-mail or Internet – it’s much more impersonal than a phone conversation (see page 69 for suggestions on how to maintain personal connections in the digital age). Because of this, Bauer or Russell confirm each appointment that’s booked online by phone.
    “It’s harder to be personal and personable on e-mail or text and it’s harder to read someone’s tone,” Bauer says.
    So, she and her sister try to only communicate by e-mail or text factual information like confirming an appointment or letting a bride know something she’s ordered has arrived. They speak with their clients directly on bigger issues.

5. In-store check-Ins. When women enter Fiancée 2 Prom, a prom-focused store in Bismarck, N.D., the first thing they do is check-in via a laptop by the door. This records their vital data – name, age, school, graduation date, phone number, e-mail address – and prints out a label containing that information.
    This means all customers are seen in the order in which they arrived, and store employees can greet each customer by name, creating a good atmosphere from the get-go.
    It also means there won’t be two girls in the same prom dress at any school, says the store’s manager, Kinzey Whitty.
    “The computer system tracks it and won’t even let you sell the same dress in the same color to two people,” she explains.
    Whitty also uses an app, Wait List Me (www.waitlist.me, originally designed for restaurants) for her fitting rooms, which she says ensures everything is fair and all customers are seen in a timely manner. This app is free for the first 100 customers and then costs $19 per month.
    “It really helps with traffic control,” Whitty says.

6. Social media. Social media’s not optional any more since it’s hard to find a millennial woman who isn’t a heavy user of it.
    Shannelle Armstrong-Fowler, owner of Haute & Co. in Chicago, uses social media, but rarely to encourage customers or potential customers to buy – only around 20 percent of the time.
    “We are so inundated with messages to buy we must not forget why social media exists and that’s to share,” she says. “The bulk of my posts are motivational, the beauty of the industry, trends. You have to see yourself as more than a retailer.”
    Cathy Montante, owner of Collezione Fortuna in Carmel by the Sea, Calif., prefers doing things the old-school way but has forced herself to use social media to connect with her clientele.
    “I learned from one wedding planner that Instagram is No. 1 so I’m trying to update that with more images of what I have in the store,” she says. “Brides don’t look at your website any more; they go to Pinterest, and they look to see if you have an Instagram page and if it doesn’t appeal to them they move on.”
    Every time a girl buys a dress at Fiancée 2 Prom she can have her photo taken with a customizable sign the store can then post on Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest. When the customer sees this, she then shares it, thus promoting the store to her friends – potential future customers.
    “When people see the pictures there’s an urgency for the other girls to buy their prom dresses soon,” Whitty says.


A Nod to the Old-School

Technology is forever getting better, faster and making our lives more efficient, but sometimes, old-school methods work just as well – or better. Here’s how a few bridal retailers are doing things successfully the old-fashioned way:

1. Direct mail. Cathy Montante, owner of Collezione Fortuna in Carmel, Calif., still uses direct mail to stand out from the crowd of online marketers.
    “A lot of brides live out of town and I want to capture them,” she says.
    It’s also easier on her feelings, Montante says, because she sometimes gets cruel notes back to e-mail advertising.
    “I’ve had nasty replies but there’s no reason to be rude and it’s easy to unsubscribe from my e-mails,” she says.
    Conversely, she adds, “direct mail is an easy way to get your name out there without hostility.”
    She keeps the mailers simple with store hours, information on what she sells and contact information.
    Montante spends $3,000 to $5,000 per year on direct mail, though says one way to reduce costs on the mailers is to take advantage of specials on websites like Vistaprint and order business cards, postcards, marketing needs etc. in bulk.

2. Paper. For Shannelle Armstrong-Fowler, owner of Haute & Co. in Chicago, there’s something comforting about using paper in this age of going paperLESS.
    “I still like paper because you can’t rely on technology all the time,” she says. “It’s a level of comfort I can reach and touch.”
    At the end of every receipt is her store policies, disclaimers, etc., and the bride signs it.
        “So if a bride wanted to contest anything, we could pdf this form and show she’s signed it,” she says.

3. Brand ambassadors. At 27, Kinzey Whitty may be a Millennial and ready to embrace technology, but she doesn’t do everything the new way.
    “We don’t spend any money to advertise on social media,” she says, “and instead we have brand reps.”
    How it works is girls who want to buy prom dresses at Fiancée 2 Prom in Bismark, N.D., can do shout-outs on social media for the store, and receive $5 off their dress – up to $50 – for every post they upload.
    Only certain customers are selected for this – typically girls who interviewed for a job with Fiancée but for one reason or another didn’t get the position.

4. Meet-and-greet. Every two to three months Will Sanders, co-owner and operations manager of Wedding Belles Bridal Salon in Stevensville, Mich., will attend a big event put on by a wedding coordinator.
    Rather than try to connect with out-of-town brides through social media, he says being there with other bridal vendors allows him to connect with potential customers directly and more personally than he could via technology.
    “I wear a tuxedo for the event and have a girl wearing a special occasion dress,” Sanders says. “We’ll bring our laptop and tablet to show brides our merchandise online and through old-fashioned handouts.”

5. Handwritten thank yous. The employees of K&B Bridals in Bel Air, Md., send more than 300 handwritten cards to brides every year to say thank you for their business.
    “Each of my girls tries to send the card within the month of the purchase to say they look forward to seeing the bride again when the dress comes in,” says owner Bridget Nussie Moore. “This gives us a personal touch.”

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