Vera Bradley has built a retailing empire on its quilted handbags stamped with cheerful explosions of florals and paisley. Teens and college students eagerly snap up Vera backpacks to haul school supplies; baby boomer women turn to the brand for gear for travel and everyday errands.
And yet in between those two demographic groups, Vera Bradley executives say they have a problem: Millennials haven’t exactly been hooked on the brand. As this shopper graduated from college life to the corporate world, she wasn’t finding what she needed: Cotton bags and splashy prints felt too informal for a buttoned-up workplace and too cutesy for date night.
The company has been inching ahead with strategies to appeal more strongly to this group, adding more leather and microfiber handbags to its mix and equipping its new bags with features such as phone-charging capabilities. This fall, those efforts shift into high gear: Vera Bradley is launching a massive marketing blitz, overhauling its product offering and redesigning some of its stores. It’s also barreling ahead with plans to seek out licensing agreements that will allow it to branch into different kinds of products.
Vera Bradley is hoping these overtures can spark a turnaround for a badly ailing brand. Last year, the retailer saw a 10.6 percent decrease in comparable sales, a measure of its sales online and at stores open more than a year. So far this year, comparable sales are down 6.1 percent.
The company says there are a number of reasons it has struggled lately. For one, mall traffic is down across the board. And its profitability has been challenged lately as it stepped up promotions at its dozens of outlet stores. But, crucially, its gear also has not sparked the interest of 25- to 35-year-old women.
When it comes to this group, “We lost sight of what she needed in her world,” said Theresa Palermo, Vera Bradley’s chief marketing officer, in an interview.
Now the brand is looking to speak directly to these shoppers. Around Vera Bradley’s offices, its new target consumer has become known as the “daymaker,” someone who is about 28 years old and who they think of as optimistic, organized and “someone who appreciates beauty,” Palermo said.
Vera Bradley will be going after this so-called daymaker with ad buys that differ from what it has made in the past. In print, it is advertising in Glamour for the first time and is increasing its presence in InStyle. In the digital realm, you’ll soon hear the handbag maker’s first-ever ads on Hulu, Spotify and Pandora. The team is also pivoting the message of its marketing, too. For example, it will release a series of online videos showing a female sushi chef and a women’s rugby team talking about what they like about being women. The videos won’t focus much on handbags; they’re simply meant to establish Vera Bradley in shoppers’ minds as a brand that is socially conscious and promotes powerful women.
The retailer is also trying to rethink its product line to cater to the lifestyle and fashion preferences of daymakers. A prime example of that is a new line it calls the Gallatin, made of slouchy leather and available in trendy silhouettes such as a saddlebag and a mini backpack. Palermo said the signature quilted cotton bags, too, will soon get a makeover: This spring, the company will roll out different shapes for the bags and offer versions sewn with smaller quilting squares.
Meanwhile, Vera Bradley is also ditching its swooping cursive logo, something that had been with the brand since its early days that Palermo said seemed to feel “nostalgic” — not current — to customers. (Besides just looking outdated, Palermo said it can be difficult to design the swirling, sprawling icon onto its bags.) As it remodels some of its stores this fall, it will splash them with the new, less flowery logo.
That logo, too, looks to be coming to a wider variety of goods. Vera Bradley recently announced a licensing deal for stationery, organization products and coloring books, adding that it is looking for more ways to get its tentacles into the home and beauty businesses. In a conference call this month with investors, chief executive Robert Wallstrom said he doesn’t expect the licensed items will become a major source of revenue, but he’s bullish that the goods will introduce new shoppers to the brand.
Vera Bradley faces no shortage of challenges to its turnaround plans. For one, it’s not clear what the long-term appetite is for its signature quilted cotton bags. For a while, executives were saying interest in that product was declining. These days, they’re saying they believe that erosion has largely stabilized. Either way, the business has to prove that it can sustainably reinvent itself as a retailer for which cotton bags are just part of a bigger business.
The chain is also looking to grow by beefing up its presence in department stores such as Macy’s. While in some ways, this makes sense — it has a much greater penetration in specialty gift shops than in department stores — others have regretted efforts to tie their fortunes to a group of retailers facing their own struggles attracting new customers.