Editor's Note: MM.LaFleur is a winner of Inc.'s 2017 Design Awards, our annual recognition of entrepreneurs using design to build great companies, in the "Experience Design" category.
In 2014, Sarah LaFleur was facing the prospect that her women's clothing brand, MM.LaFleur, might go out of business. When the New York City-based company did trunk shows, customers--mostly working women who wanted to dress well but abhorred shopping--typically returned for a second purchase. But when it came to MM.LaFleur's primary business, e-commerce, it couldn't figure out how to recruit new customers.
So LaFleur's team decided to experiment: They emailed their most loyal shoppers and asked if the company could send them a box of clothing selected for them by a stylist. More than 18 percent opted in.
Today, the Bento Boxes, as they're called, account for 80 percent of the company's new sales, and since they were launched, 40 percent of first-time customers return within 12 weeks to make another purchase. MM.LaFleur has now stepped back from the precipice and is on track to pull in more than $70 million in 2017.
Surveying with sass
To gain insight into what kind of Bento Box to curate for a particular customer, MM.LaFleur's online questionnaire is focused, but with flair, borrowing from glossy women's magazines. "It needs to be something the customer can do in bed at 10 p.m.," LaFleur says. So besides requesting the basics--age, profession, body shape--the company asks things like "Who's your woman crush?" Among the options: Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, feminist Gloria Steinem, and,
of course, Tina Fey.
Clothing that sweats the details
The brand's approach to a woman's wardrobe is quality over quantity. "These are not cheap dresses--they're investment pieces, so we have to justify a $250 dress," says LaFleur, who recruited Miyako Nakamura, the former head designer at Zac Posen, to create her line. Part of that justification is the brand's attention to details busy women care about. Many of the fabrics are machine washable, snaps hold in bra straps, pant legs are adjustable via a hidden button, and certain tops have underarm pads
to absorb sweat. "The factories thought that was crazy," says LaFleur.
Packaging with purpose
When it came to what kind of package she should send customers, LaFleur, who grew up in Japan, thought of the multicompartment bento lunches she packed for school. The company's Bentos are similar, with layered boxes separating clothes and accessories. It's cheeky, but also highly functional: The design helps the clothes arrive unwrinkled. The garments come packed neatly in reusable, zippered plastic bags--a small but practical luxury, according to customers who repurpose them to store gym clothes or separate items in a suitcase.
Stories that stimulate
"Workwear is not something you shop for on a weekly basis," says Tory Hoen, a former New York magazine editor who is now the brand's creative director. To keep customers constantly engaged, Hoen's five-person team produces an online magazine delivered every Sunday night that has more in common with Lean In than with Harper's Bazaar. The stories profile professional women who give actionable career advice and also happen to tell you which MM.LaFleur dress is their go-to outfit. Hoen says the online mag achieves a conversion rate similar to that of the sales emails the company sends.
Some bubbly with that?
After MM.LaFleur tested a brick-and-mortar showroom in New York City, it found that women who booked appointments there often spent up to three times more than online-only shoppers. So recently it opened a permanent showroom in Washington, D.C., and has long-term pop-ups planned for Boston and other locations around the country. Women get free one-hour sessions with personal stylists who select clothing for them ahead of time, along with bottomless glasses of Prosecco. "We do our best to communicate over email," says LaFleur. "But nothing replicates the offline service."