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Photo Credt: Rodman Blanchard


A decade ago, Seng Couture, a fledgling high-end evening wear and sportswear store in Fanwood, N.J., began selling wedding gowns.
   And it was an inauspicious start in bridal retail for the family-owned operation founded by Sanh Truong and his wife, Chamroen Seng. In its first year of peddling bridal dresses, Seng Couture sold a grand total of six gowns.
   Hold it – six gowns? As in one more than five?
   “Yes,” Truong confirms.
   The entire year?
   “Yes,” Truong nods.
   Despite its less-than-spectacu-lar start, Truong and Seng never panicked nor did they abandon the vision they held for their business. In particular, Seng, a Cambodian immigrant with an innate eye for fashion and skilled hands on the sewing machine, remained steadfast in her aims.
   “As a child, I always dreamed of being a designer and I wanted that dream to come true, so I was willing to push through,” Seng says.
    And so, the family regrouped. They leaned into customer insights and research to drive purchasing. They implemented novel strategies like complimen-tary dress alterations to distinguish Seng Couture from local competitors. They acknow-ledged missteps and committed themselves to improvement. They accepted and endured risk, taking calculated steps to grow their business.
   Today, Seng Couture is one of New Jersey’s premier bridal boutiques, inhabiting a modern 20,000-square-foot storefront in North Plainfield, N.J., and effectively incorporating a second generation of leadership.

The start of Seng Couture
   When the Great Recession gripped the country in 2008, pushing uncertainty into many businesses and households across the U.S., Truong and Seng began wondering if they might take charge of their own destiny rather than leaving it in others’ hands. Truong, a carpenter, and Seng, an alterations manager at an evening wear store in Highland Park, N.J., decided to leverage Seng’s talents and launch their own retail shop stocked with evening wear and high-end sportswear.
   In 2009, the couple opened Seng Couture in a 1,500-square-foot storefront in Fanwood, a tidy suburban enclave located in the northern half of New Jersey.
   While Seng, who had created custom designs in her native Cambodia for the Prime Minister’s wife as well as other national officials and dignitaries, held technical expertise, neither she nor her husband claimed any business experience. It showed in antiquated practices, including contract-less agreements for custom gowns.
   “We had no choice but to learn as we go,” Truong says of he and Seng, who married in 1995.
   Over its first two years, the business struggled to break even, let alone turn a profit. Though rich in inventory, it was poor in customer traffic. Nearly running out of money, Truong and Seng contemplated a home equity loan to inject cash into the business.
   “We were in a rough spot,” Truong admits.
   Slowly, however, Seng Couture’s fortunes began to shift in year three as a growing client list discovered Seng’s talent as a seamstress and raved about it. As the business’s customer count swelled, profitability was finally – gratefully – within sight.
   To push their upstart business forward, Truong and Seng decided to drop prom, a moderately successful category that nevertheless complicated the shop’s bottom line with its seasonal nature. Truong and Seng filled the inventory gap by stocking bridal gowns.
   “The thinking was that bridal is a year-round business with more clientele, so that would help us out in a big way,” Truong says.
   While the rationale was smooth, the execution proved far rockier. Without any experience in bridal, the couple lacked critical knowledge about designers, lines and industry practices. When Truong asked established manufacturers about featuring their collection in Seng Couture, he encountered rejection time and time again. The store struggled to gain any traction with designers or customers.

Seng Couture finds success
   After selling but six bridal gowns in its opening year with the category, Truong and Seng re-strategized. They reflected on struggles and researched the designers and styles most resonating with modern brides. They then crafted solutions to drive traffic and strengthen the store’s value proposition.
   “The question we kept asking ourselves was, ‘What can we do to differentiate our business from others and attract more clients?’” Truong says.
   In time, they concocted a novel plan to offer free basic alterations and committed to a two-week trial run. When the Seng Couture website promoted the offering, appointments accelerated.
   At the conclusion of that initial two-week test run, the couple removed the free alterations offer from its website. Appointments dropped. Noting the cause and effect, Truong and Seng committed to a longer one-month trial. Appointments and sales surged again, prompting Seng Couture to make free alterations a permanent fixture at the boutique and its central point of differentiation in a competitive environment.
   “We had clients saving hundreds right off the bat because they didn’t need to pay for alterations,” says Illian Truong, the eldest daughter of Sanh Truong and Seng and Seng Couture’s vice president.
   With Seng Couture’s focus on value, customers flooded into the New Jersey boutique. The rising traffic pushed Sanh Truong and Seng to expand into a nearby storefront to gain more space. Meanwhile, manufacturers that had once shunned Seng Couture were now paying attention to the little store that could. The boutique’s inventory expanded as it incorporated different designers and styles, while the family later invested in two additional storefronts to enlarge its retail footprint.
   As 2020 approached, however, Seng Couture found itself turning away appointments despite its rampant physical growth.
   “Fanwood couldn’t handle the traffic,” Sanh Truong says. “It was like a flea market over there at times.”
   Seng Couture needed a different, larger home.

A new era for Seng Couture
   In September 2020, Seng Couture purchased a 20,000-square-foot commercial space in North Plainfield, N.J., about a 12-minute drive from its previous home in Fanwood.
   After gutting the space – a former furniture shop – store leadership carefully crafted the layout, going back and forth with team members and department heads to determine the ideal spots for its specific departments and ever-expanding inventory that now includes more than 2,300 bridal gowns alongside selections from 12 bridesmaids’ lines and 13 evening gown lines.
   At Seng Couture’s new four-level home, bridal inhabits the two upper levels. Alterations, meanwhile, sit below bridal with mothers and bridesmaids blanketing the operation’s lowest level.
   “This allows everyone to have their own space to work in and keeps the flow of the day going smoothly,” Illian Truong says.
   There were other careful, thoughtful touches as well. Each of the store’s 15 bridal suites, for instance, features automated black curtains. With the touch of a button, the curtains open to reveal the bride in one dramatic unveiling.
   “That makes the moment really special,” Illian Truong notes.
   Seng Couture’s inventory, now headlined by nearly 50 bridal lines crisscrossing price points, styles and sizes, all but assures the right look is available for every bride.
   “Having a big enough inventory is important, so our customer doesn’t feel she has to go anywhere else,” Illian Truong says.
   Hosting such a massive inventory, however, demands ongoing attention as well as defined systems and processes. Whenever a new dress comes in, for example, it is first inspected before it is added to the website and placed on the sales floor, where racks are organized by designer and every dress sits in a prescribed slot.
   “With this level of inventory, organization is critical,” Illian Truong says.
   Complimentary alterations, meanwhile, remain a staple at Seng Couture for any wedding gown purchase exceeding $1,500. The alterations include a basic hem, basic seam alterations, bustle, steaming and garment bag. In addition, the boutique, which charges the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on its gowns, publicizes a price guarantee as well. If a customer finds the same gown at another authorized retailer, Seng Couture will match that price and beat it by five percent.
   “This reassures our customers of the value we bring and that they will not overpay on their purchase from us,” Seng says.

Seng Couture’s continued evolution
   In spite of its success, Seng Couture remains an evolving operation with leadership unafraid to make changes designed to benefit the store and its customers.
   During the nearly three-month shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, store leadership began exploring ideas to streamline appointments. The family decided to upload all of the store’s inventory to its website so brides could pre-shop available inventory and educate themselves about the store’s dresses. Seng Couture also encourages its brides to pre-select five favorites in advance of their appointment, a move providing stylists a running start on appointments.
   “Brides love this,” Sanh Truong says of having inventory accessible on the store’s website. “They enjoy the freedom to see everything we have from the convenience of their home, while it helps us be more efficient with appointments, too.”
   While Seng, who largely oversees alterations and customer service, and Sanh Truong, who handles purchasing, store finances, office management and operations, remain actively involved in the business, Illian Truong – “The backbone of the business,” her father says – continues taking on a greater role in the family operation. She embraces the opportunity to extend Seng Couture’s legacy well into the future.
   “This is not an easy industry, which we’ve learned the hard way, but we’re grateful for those lessons and the experiences we’ve had to build a successful business,” Illian Truong says. “Now, it’s about continuing to build on that by providing great service and creating more forever memories for our customers.”