D.J. Marinelli and the leadership team at Exquisite Bride know a thing or two about expansion.
    Since opening the flagship Exquisite Bride store in Murrysville, Pa., 12 years ago, Marinelli and his partners have moved that bridal operation into a bigger location, purchased a near-bankrupt bridal store some 30 minutes away in Gibsonia, Pa., and then expanded that store into adjacent storefronts on two different occasions to triple its original size. And now, Marinelli says, leadership is contemplating adding a third store to the mix.
    “Pretty early on, we had expansion on the mind, though we didn’t know when or where,” says Marinelli, the store’s director of sales and marketing.    
    Expansion has become a bit of a habit for Erica Janke, too.
    Janke opened Blush Bridal Lounge in Austin, Tex., in October 2009. Over the store’s first three years, business blossomed, and Janke noted an interesting marketplace opportunity.
    “Brides consistently called the store asking if we purchased used dresses. At first, I just ignored this because I didn’t want to deal with the headache, but the calls and e-mails kept coming,” Janke says. “It was clear the demand was there.”
    In 2012, Janke launched Second Summer Bride in Austin, a high-end bridal reseller about 10 miles away from Blush Bridal Lounge. Like Blush, Second Summer functions as a full-service, appointment-only shop.
    Two years later, Janke returned to expansion mode, teaming with an industry colleague to open a Second Summer storefront in Sacramento, Calif., an ambitious foray well beyond her home base in Austin.
    “I wanted to really branch out and that store functions as a faux franchise of sorts with an full-time operator there,” Janke says.
    Earlier this year, Janke expanded again, opening a pop-up store within Second Summer’s Austin location for full-figured brides called Bloom by Blush.
    That’s four stores in eight years and Janke shows no signs of slowing. In fact, in early 2018, Janke will move her flagship Blush Bridal Lounge into a new Austin location that is three times the size of its current space.
    “No risk, no reward,” she says. “You have to keep changing and evolving with the times.”
    For many bridal retailers, deciding to expand, whether that’s opening another storefront or even moving into a bigger space, is a challenging undertaking littered with a litany of questions, concerns and, of course, risk. Expansion will almost always mean more – more money, more staff, more inventory, more overhead, more expectations. It’s far from easy and never a business decision that should be entered into without hefty doses of analysis, self-reflection and inquiry.
    VOWS turns to veteran, multi-store operators to better understand the key questions any bridal retail shop should investigate before putting expansion plans in motion.

Why do I want to expand?
    It’s a question many owners fail to ask, yet one all need to consider. Is the motivation to expand driven by financial goals, customer demand, maybe even ego or something else? The question is vital because expansion comes with inherent risks and bridal retailers must be honest with themselves about what’s driving their expansion interests.
    For Janke, the motivation to expand was rooted in her company’s mission to be an accessible, diversified business for all brides. The store’s motto, in fact, is “No bride left behind.”
    “With Second Summer and Bloom by Blush, this was about customer demand and positioning [my entire business] to capture a bigger customer base,” she says. “If I opened another Blush Bridal Lounge, then I was just repeating myself and not accomplishing that.”
    Since opening the flagship Blush, Janke has continuously crafted and refined a vision for the future of her business, looking three, five and 10 years ahead to reflect on where she wants the company to be as well as potential growth and diversification strategies.
    “Nothing has been on a whim,” she says. “There’s a plan, a vision, and I know why I’m making certain decisions.”

Do the financials make sense?
    Surely a critical issue and one that prompts many sleepless nights, successful expansion-minded owners carefully mind the financials, taking calculated risks and being careful not to overleverage the business.
    When the owner of the existing Gibsonia bridal shop initially approached Marinelli looking to strike a deal, the Exquisite Bride team rejected the overture. As much as the group wanted to expand and saw promise in the deal, the price was too high. When that same exiting owner later returned with a sweeter deal, however, Exquisite Bride leadership solidified terms at a price they could comfortably swing.
    “Lock, stock and barrel and we went for it,” Marinelli says.
    Before inking a three-year lease agreement for a 1,500-square-foot storefront in Macon, Ga., Carrie Huyett, owner of Carrie’s Bridal Collection, a six-year-old, 2,000-square-foot shop in Atlanta, closely analyzed the key financial details, wanting to be certain she could absorb adding a second store onto her balance sheet. As Huyett owned her Atlanta building, she was able to save $4,000-5,000 per month in rent, a reality that made the Macon location’s $1,000 monthly rent feasible. Yet more, Huyett believed she could staff the Macon store with one full-time operator.
    “It was added costs, no doubt about that,” Huyett says of opening the Macon store, “but we got our financial ducks in a row and felt confident this expansion was something we could financially support.”

Do I have – or do I believe I can develop – the human capital to operate another store?
    As Huyett contemplated opening a second store, one particular issue consumed her mind: staffing. As no owner can be in two places at once, having a second store requires the presence of a competent and trustworthy on-site operator. It’s what Janke has at her locations and what Huyett knew she needed.
    “If you don’t trust people, then it’s tough to succeed when you expand,” Janke says.
    With expansion on the horizon, Janke has focused on developing people. It begins with the hiring process, where she assesses any candidate’s fit with her company’s culture. Later, she assigns staff added responsibilities as they show they are invested in the business and ready to tackle new challenges. This escalating process has helped Janke develop a deep bench of potential leaders she can then promote from within as new opportunities arise.
    Huyett, meanwhile, eased her staffing concerns by appointing one capable, full-time staff member at her Atlanta flagship to oversee the Macon boutique, a relationship that has produced fruitful results thus far.

What kind of synergies might I be able to create that will help the business, including its bottom line?
    Advertising was one of Janke’s primary concerns before opening her second store, particularly worried that her marketing spend – so necessary when opening a new outlet – would soar, especially given that Blush and Second Summer were two different concepts. Quickly, however, Janke noticed inherent synergies. In Austin, Janke has piggybacked many marketing expenses for either Blush or Second Summer onto the other, while staff regularly refers customers from one to the other.
    “They are true sister stores and anytime we’re talking about one, we’re talking about the other,” Janke says, adding that staff routinely moves between her Austin-based concepts to gain more knowledge and to experience a different pace.
    “This also helps things from feeling stale, for both staff and the customers.”
    On the inventory side, Marinelli says opening an additional storefront has allowed Exquisite Bride to deepen partnerships with vendors, particularly those willing to be understanding and flexible partners.
    “Before opening another shop, talk to the vendors that will be in your store and get squared away on terms because that might sway some of your decision making,” he advises.

What infrastructure will I need to invest in to be successful?
    Amid the excitement and energy of expansion, it’s easy to overlook key details and Marinelli suggests retailers investigate their infrastructure needs. The Exquisite Bride, for instance, had to install a server so the two locations could communicate with one another and see each other’s current inventory. There are also issues like telephone lines, software to support operations, e-mail addresses to ensure inquiries go to the right person and even smaller things to consider, such as the mailing address of utility bills.
    “You’re infrastructure has to be rock solid because if it’s not, then you can get upside down real quick,” Marinelli says.

Do I go with an exact replica of my flagship store or switch it up a bit?
    When the second Exquisite Bride debuted in Gibsonia, Marinelli says he and his colleagues were convinced they held the secret sauce and aimed to make the Gibsonia store a replica of the Exquisite Bride’s thriving Murrysville location. Each store featured the same wall color, chandeliers and flooring, not to mention the same customer-centric mindset. It didn’t work as planned.
    “It was shocking to see how the two stores were so different and how the clientele were interested in such different things,” he admits.
    It was an important lesson to learn: what’s successful in one spot is not guaranteed to work in another, even if everything seems equal. Store leadership has carefully listened to staff and customer feedback at the Gibsonia unit, insights that led the store to alter its inventory mix.

Do I honestly have the stomach to take on the risk that comes with expansion?
    Opening a new store is filled with uncertainty. Will customers come? How long will it take for the store to turn a profit? Will it be successful? There are no guarantees and no entrepreneur can escape risk. Expansion will, almost inevitably, be a ride of ups and downs, ebbs and flows and second thoughts – and that’s not a ride every bridal retailer will be able to endure.
    “That’s why you have be 100-percent sure you want to do it,” says Huyett, whose store specializes in off-the-rack bridal gowns under $1,000.
    For Marinelli, the Exquisite Bride’s immense success propelled its suburban Pittsburgh expansion. With the Murrysville store booked full seven days a week, the single-store operation simply couldn’t accommodate demand. Though store leadership wanted to alleviate pressure from the mother ship, they also weren’t going to rush into any deal that would deliver unnecessary – and avoidable – stress.
    “It’s easy to get overzealous with your success, but don’t go too fast and furious,” Marinelli says. “Growth needs to be controlled and calculated.”


Special Thanks to Store Sources:
Blush Bridal Lounge and Second Summer Bride, Austin, Texas  – Twitter: @BlushBrides

Carrie’s Bridal Collection, Atlanta and Macon, Ga. – Twitter: @Carries_Bridal

Exquisite Bride, Murrysville and Gibsonia, Pa. – Twitter: @ExqBride