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DIRECT MAGAZINE Issue May 2008 “The Web Suits Them” Trade Circulation: 50,000

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DIRECT MAGAZINE Issue May 2008 “The Web Suits Them” Trade Circulation: 50,000

The leading magazine for direct marketers, DIRECT, is delivered to nearly 50,000 marketing professionals with interest in direct mail, e-commerce, CRM, catalog and database marketing.

DIRECT sits down with Always For Me, Inc. founder and CEO, Susan Barone for an informative Q&A about online and offline marketing strategies for plus size swimwear. 

The Web Suits Them, May 1, 2008 12:00 PM , By Beth Negus Viveiros

“Stop, look and listen” is good advice when arriving at a railroad crossing. It's also sound thinking when trying to build a relationship with an underserved customer demographic.

AlwaysForMe.com is using its core Web site as well as social media and phone contacts to connect with women size 16 to 26. Susan Barone founded the company in 2000, after working in the wholesale dress divisions of big sportswear firms for several years. “I saw that the plus-size side of the market was not being served,” she said.

Today, Hauppauge, NY-based AlwaysForMe — which markets swimwear, lingerie and workout clothing — has 10 employees and 45,000 customers. Direct talked with Barone about online and offline marketing strategies just as the company was heading into the busiest two months of the year for swimwear sales, June and July.

DIRECT: Your initial Web venture in this niche was a portald called UniquelyMe.com.

BARONE: Right. That's what you do when you don't have an angel investor and you're using your own money (Laughs). Basically, I had little money to start and thought, well, let me offer my expertise on where the plus-size woman can find whatever it is she's looking for. That was my ticket — we were the plus-size personal shopper. I used the affiliate marketing MO and built that site, but I knew in a short time that a portal wouldn't necessarily bring in enough income to be a full-fledged business. Within months we put up AlwaysForMe.com.

DIRECT: How did that launch?

BARONE: The first type of garments we sold were dresses, because that's what my background was in the wholesale business, followed by swimwear. When I saw how successful that was, I tried to create similar categories of merchandise. One of the biggest problems plus-size consumers have is that there isn't much swimwear selection in department stores. [The store's buyers] have to be safe, because there isn't much money left over for them to allocate plus-size stock. So they always have the same old thing, year in and year out. Buyers can't step out of the box and say, “Let's try this really fashion-forward piece,” because it could mean their jobs. I saw that was also happening in lingerie.

DIRECT: What are the challenges in marketing swimwear? I imagine there might be a lot of returns.

BARONE: We have about a 20% return rate, and actually, overall, that's good. I remember when I worked with a lot of different catalogs [on the wholesale side], the average return rate was 35%. We're OK with 20%. Our customer is really shopping. She might buy five swimsuits, then keep three and return two. But what we see is that our customer comes back time and time again. When she finds a suit she likes, she'll buy that suit every way we sell it. We'll do everything we can to that basic silhouette, so we can keep feeding that customer more and more options.

DIRECT: Who's your competition?

BARONE:I watch other sites and what the department stores do. But the most successful things on our site are our own house labels, which cater to different segments. More than 60% to 70% of our swimwear business is done through labels we create ourselves. Customers can't get our product anywhere else. If they like it, they have to buy it from us.

DIRECT: How do you find new customers?

BARONE: Grassroots marketing — our customers tell their friends. And obviously through search-engine marketing. We've kept on top of that for the keywords that drive our business, basic ones like “plus-size swimwear.” We do research all the time to see how customers come into our site, to find out where they were before they arrived at our site. We ask during phone orders as well. Customers are very open. The plus-size woman is willing to give you all kinds of information, because historically she hasn't found that people listen to what she says.

DIRECT: Are your call center services handled in house?

BARONE: Yes. At one point we did test using a call center for a year and it was a disaster. About 5% of our orders come in by phone. If our customers are calling us, they need direction. They need to speak to someone who knows the product. We ask them what size pants and bra they wear, because with that information we can direct them to what will flatter their body shape. From a business end it reduces returns, because now you're giving customers a suit that's really going to fit their body. You're also making the shopping experience more enjoyable, so they're going to come back.

DIRECT: How do you keep in touch with customers?

BARONE: We have a weekly e-mail newsletter where we announce new products and do trend reports. There, we're able to constantly put up new photos and announce when new merchandise comes in. Social media is tremendous for connecting with your customers on a personal level. After we take an order, it's not just “Thank you very much.” We listen. Oh, where are you on vacation? The Caribbean? Where are you staying? We get into a whole conversation. We learn a lot about our customers, so we know when to contact them again and what styles they like. We make notes in the customer files. Then, for example, when new Delta Burke suits come in, we can e-mail and let them know.

DIRECT: Do you have a print catalog?

BARONE: I prefer to use our dollars in other ways. It's a huge investment, and our customers are so Internet-oriented. They want things now. A large percentage of our orders are sent second-day air and overnight, because often when they find us they're in a panic because they waited until the last minute.

DIRECT: Is print advertising part of your strategy?

BARONE: We experimented and did some print in Mode magazine and we got too many phone calls to handle. Everyone wanted a catalog — a lot of the respondents didn't even have computers. We're doing another test this year with Condé Nast, running a local ad in the Long Island area in Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and The New Yorker, just to see if it would pay off. And we're trying some local print in the United Kingdom in a [publication] for Internet marketers.