Buying a bridesmaid’s dress can be a frustrating experience: The dress is often expensive and all about someone else’s taste, whether in style, cut or color, and not something the consumer would otherwise purchase.
The e-retailer allows brides to select a dress and then shoppers can rent it for $60 (cocktail dresses) or $75 (full-length). The consumer selects two sizes—her size and a backup—and receives the dresses two weeks before the wedding. After she wears it, she returns it in the prepaid packaging and Union Station dry-cleans it.
A shopper can also choose to buy a dress, at $150 for the cocktail version and $185 for a full-length gown. However, most consumers rent, says Hardee, who is the retailer’s CEO. To date, Union Station has outfitted more than 50,000 bridesmaids, has six employees and has raised $4.5 million in funding. Hardee declines to comment on sales, growth and profitability.
Part of the bridesmaid dress-buying problem that Hardee aims to change is the difficulty of finding a dress that looks good on all of the women in the bridal party, because most dresses are designed with the same fit model, or with one body type, Hardee says.
When she set out to launch Union Station, she visited the dress manufacturer in New York City with her sister and two friends—who each have different body types—to have the dresses designed with cuts that would flatter multiple silhouettes. Plus, Union Station offers dresses that feature a tie closure, belt or elastic in the waist to give it flexibility.
Union Station has about 1,400 SKUs, which include a dress that comes in multiple colors. The retailer maintains essentially the same silhouettes and styles of dresses but changes colors based on wedding trends and customer feedback.
Marketing, however, is challenging for bridesmaid dresses for several reasons, Hardee says.
“You’ve got one decision-maker (the bride) who isn’t necessarily paying for the product,” she says. “And then the bridesmaids, some of them may not like the dress. So how do we provide a great experience to both the bride and the bridesmaid, who will likely be getting married in the next two years?”
So far, Hardee believes the retailer is striking a good balance of pleasing brides and bridesmaids as Union Station has had “a lot” of repeat business from women used the service as a bridesmaid and then chose it when they were planning their wedding, she says, declining to reveal specifics about repeat customers.
To acquire customers, Union Station advertises on Facebook, targeting shoppers who have changed their relationship status to “engaged.” The retailer also advertises on wedding blogs and on Pinterest, which is where many brides heard about Union Station in its first few years, Hardee says.
Shoppers on Union Station can request free fabric swatches of the dresses so they can see the dress colors. This also helps with capturing customer leads, she says.
The retailer also plans to have “pop-up” events in six to eight cities in 2018 to showcase its dresses at a hotel or wedding venue and raise brand awareness. Such events also allow consumers to see Union Stations product in person, which can be a barrier with online-only shopping, Hardee says.
Union Station is not alone in offering clothing rentals, and that’s not a bad thing, Hardee says. If anything, having other e-retailers with a similar business model has helped her business, she says.
“We’ve had a lot of consumers that come to us and say they’ve used other rental services, they like it, and they have gone through the experience and know how it works,” she says. “If you look at rental businesses, you are putting your faith in a company. The more positive experiences you’ve had with other types of rental companies, the more likely you are to try something new.”