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Maurices stays on its toes: New in-store, online initiatives help Duluth-based retailer compete

Visual merchandiser Marya Kovala of Duluth arranges a holiday display at the Miller Hill Mall Maurices location Thursday afternoon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 7
The exterior of the Miller Hill Mall Maurices on Thursday afternoon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 7
The Miller Hill Mall Roz & Ali location Thursday afternoon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 7
A ceramic candy dish and coffee mugs are among holiday items at the Miller Hill Mall Maurices last week. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 7
A sign at the Miller Hill Mall Maurices advertises the store is offering VIP cardholders 10 percent off every day. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 7
A holiday display focuses on pajamas and sleepware at the Miller Hill Mall Maurices last week. Sleepwear was previously available only online. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 7
A holiday display at the Miller Hill Mall Roz & Ali location Thursday afternoon. Roz & Ali used to be Dressbarn. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 7

If Maurices was simply reacting to retail's upheaval before, it's trying everything to lead the way these days.

"The climate has changed, and there are lots of lessons that have been learned," said George Goldfarb, CEO of the Duluth-based women's apparel chain. "It's so important to just keep testing new programs in this environment."

Some of those tests have turned to testaments: an integrated web/store shopping experience; a loyalty rewards program; a personalized sales approach using artificial intelligence; proactive discounting.

Then there are the pilot programs, still under wraps, that could yet give that extra lift to the thousand of Maurices locations around the U.S. and Canada.

"Things are moving fast — we have to be agile," said Laura Sieger, vice president for strategic initiatives. "It's not like you can spend a year planning something; you've got to go on some of these things."

It's a customer-obsessed world for retailers, who face ever-increasing pressure from Amazon, frugal consumers and investors. Dozens of big apparel shops have seen their stocks plummet this year, including Maurices parent Ascena Retail Group.

In response, Ascena has pursued its "Change for Growth" program that has seen some corporate streamlining as well as store closures. Maurices, too, has been busy adjusting its footing as it rides the wave of digital disruption. But the core business remains the same.

"Delivering this great differentiated fashion that you're not going to get somewhere else and a great customer experience," Goldfarb said. "You do both of those really well, and we feel we can be successful."

Seamless connection

Order online, return at a store. Check back online to see what's in stock locally. Get an outfit shipped to your door right from that store.

"What you want is a seamless connection between the store and online," Goldfarb said. "Frictionless, convenient, seamless."

This omnichannel approach has been increasingly adopted by big retailers, and customers are increasingly expecting it. Among Ascena's brands, Maurices was at the head of the pack getting its web platform up to speed over the past several years and recently launched a VIP rewards loyalty program. All the better to compete for clicks and footprints and precious time.

"Women are busy, with lots of responsibilities," Sieger said. "'Make it easy for me, make it convenient, give me great fashion at a great price, and add great service with it.'"

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report earlier this year said that omni strategies have had mixed success even while online retail sales are growing seven times faster than the industry as a whole. The best approaches to integrating web and brick-and-mortar, according to the consulting house, involve "consolidated inventory systems, a compelling digital consumer experience and big data analytics."

Maurices seems to hit all those.

"Data and innovation come into that equation," Goldfarb said. "We are gaining some traction on the online front."

The storefront, meanwhile, continues to play a pivotal role.

New aspects on old concepts

Maurices aims to bring boutique experiences to small and midsized markets, and that experience is boosted by style and fit training and, increasingly, help from artificial intelligence.

"We're training our associates and building ... store-level personal connections," Goldfarb said. "Look at some of the alternatives, and it's more of a transaction."

Shoppers can now get improved recommendations based on past purchases, in-store and online, along with recommended products based on what they were browsing for on other websites.

"If you like this, this will go well with it — will complete the look," Sieger explained.

Customers who enjoy that convenience may also like being able to shop for Maurices tops and jeans and more on Amazon.com. It's not exactly an "if you can't fight them, join them" moment, though — just another of the company's trials.

"It started out as a test, and we're continuing to evaluate where to go," Goldfarb said. "It's a small, small part of our overall digital strategy."

The executive also said many new strategies come from among the hundreds of employees who work at the Superior Street headquarters. To take better advantage of that potential, Maurices recently started a "spark day," where all employees focus on innovation.

"Leverage your team; there are so many good ideas internally," Goldfarb said.

The other Ascena brand that Goldfarb now oversees, Dressbarn, is taking on an even bigger trial by rebranding a handful of its stores as Roz & Ali. The Miller Hill Mall location in Duluth is among 52 of Dressbarn's 779 locations around the country involved in the rebranding, which is meant to step up the boutique's offerings and atmosphere.

"Roz & Ali goes well beyond just changing the name," Goldfarb said. "We've had much more of a focus on delivering consistent fit, quality and price."

Dressbarn and Maurices are both in Ascena's Value Fashion segment, and so the emphasis on budget-friendly prices remains strong. Rather than participate in a discounting race to the bottom, however, Goldfarb said the pricing strategy is proactive rather than a reactionary, inventory-clearing approach.

All these lessons are being carried into "fun and whimsical" holiday offerings now being offered by Maurices and Dressbarn after years of staying away from holiday-focused offerings. Think scarves, sleepwear, clever gift card boxes and other stocking stuffers, Sieger said.

"That's something we've been building up over the years, the proprietary designs, and that's an exciting part of our differentiated fashion — that's still what people are looking for."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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