Three years ago, Steve Zawada would have sworn ELOQUII would never have physical stores. He was wrong.
“The business changes constantly,” says Zawada, the company’s co-founder and COO. “If you talk to me six months from now, something different is going to happen and we’re probably going to be on to that. But it’s all about listening to our customer because ultimately the customer is our boss, so we’re evolving as she evolves.”
An e-commerce company that designs and sells fast fashion apparel for women sizes 14-24, ELOQUII employs 130 people after four rounds of venture capital funding.
ELOQUII launched as a digitally native vertical brand of The Limited in 2011. The idea was to have a fashion brand that just happened to be plus-sized, because 67 percent of U.S. women wear size 14 or above.
“At the time, plus-size clothing was still a little bit taboo,” Zawada says.
Two weeks after the launch, Zawada was asked to step in as general manager. He cleaned up the inventory, turning the brand around. However, Limited stores weren’t doing well and Sun Capital Partners decided to divest all but the core brand. Zawada says investors were interested, so ELOQUII had its non-compete waived as part of its exit.
“We also had a huge outcry when ELOQUII was closed of customers writing in and bloggers saying, ‘You’re doing this to us again. Why would you take a fashionable brand away from us? You just gave it to us,’” he says.
Zawada says the plan was to create a new brand with new investors. But one investor pointed out that the ELOQUII name — a made-up combination of eloquent and soliloquy — was still being searched thousands of times a day.
“The three of us hated the name. We thought it was hard to pronounce and difficult to spell,” Zawada says of the original management team. “We were ready to walk away from it.”
Instead, they purchased the name, customer list and website wire frames, and relaunched in 2014.
Zawada had a background in buying and merchandising, but didn’t know much about fundraising and startups. So, ELOQUII hired Mariah Chase, who had sold her business to QVC, as the CEO.
Today, ELOQUII’s design, marketing and about 40 associates are in New York City; all remaining functions are in Columbus. The company has doubled its business year-over-year, but Zawada and the other executives were concerned about profitability.
“We’re saying to ourselves, ‘Are we really going to be the next Amazon or do we need other channels in order to grow our business?’” he says.
To become omnichannel, ELOQUII tried out a catalog. Interestingly, customers perceived it as more of a magazine. They were excited to see women who looked like them.
ELOQUII produced six catalogs in 2017, and plans to increase that to eight this year. At the same time, customers wanted to touch and feel the merchandise.
“We kept saying over and over: We’re never going to open stores,” Zawada says. “Personally, I’ve done that for the past 20 years. E-commerce is the way to go. We’re not going to do brick and mortar. All these other brands are closing. Malls are dying.”
Finally, in the spring and fall of 2017, ELOQUII tested pop-up stores in Washington D.C. and Chicago, its No. 2 and No. 3 markets. (It skipped New York City because it would have been difficult to run a profitable store.)
Zawada says the company tested store size, what percentage of styles to offer, how fast to turn them over, and digital screens and iPads.
“Some things resonated and some things didn’t, but overall what we did learn was we were on to something. This customer who is plus size and has been plus size for the majority of her life never really had a true fashion styling experience,” he says.