The Crunch: When PromGirl launched in 1998, many industry vendors and designers were skeptical that a company could sell prom dresses online. But by returning the focus to the customer and providing such a wide selection, PromGirl was able to disrupt a stagnant industry by throwing out the old business model and embracing e-commerce. PromGirl goes beyond selling dresses to connect with consumers on a more personal level through social media, videos, and style guides to help women make more informed purchasing decisions. The company continues to move forward with plans to serve broader audiences through other ventures in formalwear.
Prom is such an entrenched rite of passage for high schoolers that it has supported an entire subset of the retail industry for decades. Brick-and-mortar businesses have relied heavily on the season to drive formalwear sales, but haven’t always offered a wide selection to prom-goers.
Historically, girls begin shopping for a dress months in advance, not only to perfect the look but also because stores only stocked minimal dress choices. The best styles often sold out quickly, which meant going to more stores.
For guys, the process was usually less labor-intensive, but still required flipping through a book of fabric swatches a foot thick to pick the perfect color bowtie to match a date’s dress. Neither scenario was perfect, and a void existed in the marketplace even though a girl’s experience shopping for prom is akin to picking out a wedding dress.
In 1998, PromGirl embarked on a mission to fundamentally change the process by taking the experience online and putting the customer at the center. As a pioneer in e-commerce, the site faced many hurdles and doubters, but its focus on the consumer — and content — eventually made believers out of industry skeptics.
“From the beginning, providing information to the customer was the most important thing,” said Kim Collins, Senior Vice President of PromGirl. “It’s not just about selling something. We need to give them content beyond the dress. We talk about how to ask someone to prom, or what colors look best on your skin tone, to help them make the best decision.”
PromGirl carries a wide selection of styles so customers can select a dress that truly reflects their beauty. The company also stays connected with its customers during the buying process — and beyond — through social media and its informative content.
The company began with a vision of democratizing prom-dress shopping and has grown into a globally known formalwear brand — even spawning a sister company for tuxedo rentals called PromGuy. Growing the company into such a success took hard work, determination, and a keen sense of the importance of the internet.
Bringing the Fashion Industry Online by Building Strong Relationships
It certainly wasn’t a given that PromGirl would be such a success. In fact, when the site launched, many dressmakers did not see a future in selling formalwear online. Many were adamant that the prom dress industry was better suited for physical stores.
“We would often get kicked out of showrooms by vendors who would say, ‘We don’t sell online,’” said Kim, who joined the company in 2001 after helping CEO David Wilkenfeld write a book about prom. “We got a lot of pushback in the beginning, and it took a couple of years to start getting vendors. But once we started to sell their products, we began building strong relationships with those brands.”
Those relationships led to more designer partnerships in more regions around the country, and PromGirl was able to grow into an international brand by offering dresses from partners around the world, not just the region-specific offerings found in stores.
“A store in the South may sell more ballgowns while a store in California may sell more two-piece dresses,” Kim told us. “We are selling to the world, so we have an eye on what everybody is buying and know what those trends are.”
With that data, PromGirl stays ahead of the curve on what styles will be most popular and helps vendors know what the future holds.
Global Data Allows PromGirl to Predict and Quickly React to Trends
PromGirl analyzes global purchase data to uncover fashion trends related to style, color, season and many other factors. The company also works closely with vendors, sharing data with them so supply-side adjustments can be made quickly.
Sometimes, information on current trends can run counterintuitive to years of fashion experience, such as one instance when a particular color’s popularity remained high despite the fact that many vendors felt it was out of season.
“A couple of years ago, we had burgundy dresses that were having strong sales in the fall, and I convinced our designers that burgundy was going to have a strong spring,” Kim told us. “That data and a connection with the customer lets us have these relationships with the vendors.”
Constant communication with vendors is a big reason why PromGirl’s business model works so well. PromGirl is a trusted partner for more than 50 popular designers because it can actively help its supply chain adjust and better prepare for upcoming seasons.
Connecting to Customers Through Social Media, Videos, and Shows
The team at PromGirl knows that it’s only as successful as its customers, which is why the company strives to connect with them wherever they are. The company’s Instagram account has more than 132,000 followers and is often used as a tool to highlight customer stories.
PromGirl also interacts with consumers on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and through its mobile app. Those connections are important because PromGirl wants customers to feel in control of the entire process — from service to shipping and beyond.
“Speaking to customers through social media is important for us,” Kim said. “Showing them behind the scenes at photoshoots and other customers in dresses they’ve purchased from us allows them to feel more connected.”
PromGirl keeps customers informed on a variety of topics — from the latest trends to styles for every budget — with its videos and guides, such as its ultimate prom guide with tips from experts.
Consumers have rewarded PromGirl for its commitment to them by helping the brand grow exponentially since 1998, and the team behind PromGirl is continuing its growth into other verticals — and expecting the same success.
Success Leads to New Opportunities in Formalwear
PromGirl took a calculated risk when it flipped the script on the traditional prom-dress-buying experience by bringing it online. But the company relieved a longstanding pain point for shoppers everywhere by putting them first and providing such an extensive selection.
“When I joined the company in 2001, all of my family and friends said, ‘Who is going to buy a prom dress online?'” Kim told us. “We were very early adopters, and we always want to stay two steps ahead of the competition.”
Now, no one is asking whether someone will buy a prom dress online, they are wondering where PromGirl is going next. The answer? Taking its customer-focused business model to serving bridesmaids and wedding parties. The company sees a need in the space and plans to launch a new site focused on bridal parties later this year.
By focusing on the customer experience, PromGirl continues to strive toward its goal of dressing every woman for every special occasion. And, as a company that disrupted the industry by embracing e-commerce, PromGirl is always looking for ways to continue innovating and evolving.