LOS ANGELES: Ashley Stewart, the plus-size clothing retailer for women, was able to call upon the enduring strength of its brand as it sought to rebuild an ailing business.

James Rhee, who took over as Ashley Stewart’s CEO in 2013, discussed the chain’s successful turnaround in a session at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2017 Shop.org conference in Los Angeles.

When Rhee assumed leadership of the Secaucus, New Jersey-based firm, he reported, it was “perpetually insolvent”, not least because the business fundamentals were in disarray.

Ashley Stewart’s main advantage at the time? “This is the best brand. It’s just the worst company. But we can fix the company,” Rhee said in describing his initial mission statement. (For more, read WARC’s in-depth report: How Ashley Stewart leveraged its brand power and saved a business.)

His appraisal of the brand’s value wasn’t built on a balance sheet, but on the relationships and trust its employees had in their communities, and the role its stores played as gathering places for woman, many of whom had shopped there for years.

“Retail always has been, and always will be, a reflection of society. It’s always going to be about people,” Rhee said. “It may be technologically enabled, but it’ll always be about people.”

The strategic steps implemented by Rhee included everything from installing WiFi at the corporation’s headquarters to closing 100 stores, transforming Ashley Stewart’s website, and adopting modern supply-chain techniques.

Its marketing has focused on celebrating the “Ashley Stewart woman” – and, specifically, her pride, resilience, and connection to her community. A culture of kindness and generosity at the store and corporate level is also emphasised.

The renewed Ashley Stewart brand has established a significant presence on social media, too, helping build a broader sense of community among its most loyal clientele.

“We were operating out of an insect-infested warehouse in Secaucus [in New Jersey]. And, on the surface of it, you say, ‘That’s the brand’,” said Rhee.

“But if you peel back the onion ... what I saw was this: I thought that the brand stood for a lot of great things. I thought it stood for community, and self-esteem, and respect ... It was one of the strongest women’s brands I’d ever seen.”

Sourced from WARC