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How Calgary-Based Women’s Fashion Brand SophieGrace Plans to Grow after Launching Pre-Pandemic

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SophieGrace was founded on the simple principle of making working women’s lives easier.

As an entrepreneur, activist, mom and real estate business leader – not to mention a former lawyer and political staffer – Emma May understands the challenges of wanting to look good while short on time.

Standing in her closet in 2018 she wondered why there wasn’t a brand that focused on creating streamlined elegant mix and match staples. So she made one.

Image: SophieGrace Yorkville Village Pop-Up
Emma May

Today, SophieGrace, which officially launched in January 2020, has two showrooms in Calgary and in Vancouver with potential growth in the future to other markets. The concept initially began as an online retailer.

“I wouldn’t call them stores. We have what we call a showroom strategy,” said May, who is also co-founder of Charles Real Estate in Calgary. “We have showrooms that we use as offices as well in Calgary and Vancouver. People can come in and try on the product but it’s primarily by appointment.

“I started planning it before the pandemic when we were all going into the office. Really what it was is I realized that when I was working professionally I wore a ton of mix and match separates as opposed to suiting. What I wanted to do is create a collection of mix and max separates. The original inception was sort of for professional women that were easily transitioned into outfits that almost looked like suiting but could also be worn in different environments.”

May said the concept has really connected to that audience – women who are just looking for something that is really easy but elegant and a comfortable way to dress.

Image: SophieGrace

“So instead of people having to sort through like 6,000 sku’s of crop tops and ruffles and all of the really avant garde fashion stuff we give them these basics that are the pieces that women grab and reach for every day and they can wear in any aspect of their life whether it’s in a boardroom meeting or whether it’s on the sidelines of the soccer field,” she said.

May describes herself as a “giant” online shopper and she knew her customers weren’t necessarily geographically concentrated in one area. So she always wanted to create something that would allow her to reach customers who were all around the world, particularly throughout North America, without having to make a giant investment in a retail space and commit to the staffing that requires.

“This was a strategy where it was let’s start online and have a digital first strategy. There are some people who still aren’t necessarily comfortable buying online or who want to touch and feel the product first,” said May.

“That was where the showroom concept came in. To be honest, initially when I launched, the idea was that we would actually go to where these women are. But then the pandemic hit. So that changed that whole plan. The initial plan was that we would actually go downtown where our customers were and do pop-ups in the places that they are at because I find my customers aren’t necessarily in the mall. They’re working. They’ve got jobs. They’re busy. They got other things on their minds.”

Image: SophieGrace

“So it was about how do we take this product to where they are at. They’re all on their computers. They’re all on their phones. The digital sphere is obviously something that is where they are. When it became evident that people weren’t in their offices anymore, but there were a lot of women who still wanted to touch and feel the product or they would say hey is there a store we could come too, that was when we decided to move ahead with the showroom strategy. That worked. We’ve got a stylist in Calgary who works with customers and shows them really how the concept works. We do those virtually and online as well.”

May said in the future she could see the retailer opening more showrooms with more regular hours or in more regular shopping places. It would likely be focused as people move back to in and out of the house – in places where people are working.

“If you think about Toronto there’s the PATH downtown which is like the underground mall down there or like in Calgary in the Plus 15s or downtown Vancouver where people are but it would be smaller places where we would not have inventory in place. It would really be about coming in, being able to experience the product, experience the brand, experience how the product feels on your body and then you would place your order and the product would be delivered to you,” said May.

“The reason we do that is I think it’s easier. People are used to ordering online even though they sometimes want to have a physical experience with the product and we can get product to people pretty quickly through our shipping.”

May said the retailer did a pop-up in Toronto in the fall that went really well in Yorkville Village. What was interesting was that most of the people who came to it were people who had interacted with SophieGrace online.

Bruce Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and President of Bruce Winder Retail, said pop-up retail remains an excellent method to test retail concepts without the long-term commitment of leasing a permanent store – and with numerous mall vacancies, now is the time to take advantage of this approach.

Bruce Winder

“Many companies, big and small have come to the realization that they need to test a brand or a product before launching it. Smart retailers execute a series of small tests under different circumstances (price, marketing, format, signage, etc.) and harvest customer feedback as they go so that when they launch more permanently, they have refined the concept. This approach can save a lot of time and money on would-be duds,” he said.

“Also, since pop-ups became popular, many companies have been able to match physical retail space to seasonal demand with temporary store fronts, kiosks, outdoor activations and more. As an example, why spend tens of thousands of dollars in rent for year-round shops when 70-90 per cent of your demand occurs in the fourth quarter? Or in June and July or January and February? Retailers are better able to match operational expense with revenue.

“Pop-up stores also help digitally native brands turbo-charge ecommerce sales when creating regional brick and mortar locations. Customers engage with brands on a new level through staff and community. Nothing beats touching and feeling a product to close that sale and pop-ups can help do just that. With malls running at high vacancy rates due to COVID-19, it has never been a better time to negotiate a good deal to offer a pop-up store to your customers.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior National Business Journalist with Retail Insider in addition to working on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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