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Dress for Success

Jennifer Burrell aims to make The Frock Shop the go-to emporium for rented formalwear in Chicago — and beyond

ANY WOMAN WHO HAS ever gone to a prom, been a bridesmaid or gotten married knows the torment: Spend a fortune on a dress, wear it once and never think about it again. “They were just sitting there, in perfectly good condition, just taking up space,” Jennifer Burrell says of the formalwear in her own closet. “All I saw was wasted money.”

Burrell, 33, who still works full-time in sales and marketing in the food industry, decided to do something about it. In March 2010, after months of market research and consultations with women, she opened The Frock Shop, a dress-rental emporium currently serving the Chicago area.

Burrell — who majored in international marketing at the University of Alabama — has built her dress inventory to around 350 pieces, giving her clients maximum choice. The premise couldn’t be simpler: Assess your needs, find something you like that fits, rent it, wear it and return it. The Frock Shop handles all shipping, quality control, repairs and cleaning. Rentals start between $40 and $50 — an enormous, risk-free bargain considering the astronomical prices commanded by such dresses when new.

Looking ahead, Burrell plans to further develop her Web site to expand The Frock Shop’s ambit beyond Chicago, and would eventually like to expand her inventory to include “jewelry, pageant, career and possibly men’s designer wear,” she says. “We get asked about all that a lot.” In the meantime, though, she’ll stick with her core customer as she builds her business. “There has to be a way for women to look fabulous for all the special events in their lives without breaking the bank,” she says. For women in Chicago, that increasingly means a trip to The Frock Shop.

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You’ve built The Frock Shop first as a brick-and-mortar business, and are now moving online. Has that been your overall plan since the beginning?
Yes. Our primary goal for 2011 was to launch an online dress-rental site, and we did that in October. After we launched, we realized that we had a few improvements to make in terms of functionality — there was a bit of trial and error, given that this was our first e-commerce site — so we’re going to make some minor tweaks to it this spring. After that, we will start heavily marketing the site.

Your current inventory is about 350 pieces. How does that break down, and what’s your pricing structure?
We have approximately 140 wedding dresses, 120 cocktail dresses and 85 evening gowns. We get new dresses every other week and had to add one more dress-storage unit last fall to keep up with the inventory growth. It’s exciting to see the inventory grow. The dresses in the $40–$50 range are cocktail dresses. Evening gowns are around $85; some of the more elaborate evening gowns are $125. Wedding-dress rentals start at $199.

Prom, presumably, is one of your annual highlights. How does your business model change, if at all, the rest of the year?
Prom is definitely our biggest time of year. I knew prom was going to be big for us, but I really did not know how big. We carry each dress in only one size, so we always suggest girls reserve their prom dress early because the popular styles go quickly. Our biggest client base, though, is what we call the “busy socialite” — she’s usually in her twenties and attends a lot of functions with her friends and boyfriend, and also attends the occasional corporate event. We rent dresses to this customer base year-round.

What are your short-term and long-term ambitions for The Frock Shop?
For 2012, we’re focusing on marketing the business and building our infrastructure. One of the great things about the 100UE program is that it made me focus not on temporary needs but rather on what is needed to help The Frock Shop grow long-term. As a result, it became clear that we needed to invest in marketing, infrastructure and technology, in that order. We get a lot of business from word of mouth, so we expect a substantial increase in business after we start marketing. As for the long term — in five years, I see The Frock Shop with thousands of dresses in stock, a robust and active e-commerce site and showrooms in the Chicago suburbs and possibly one or two other large metropolitan markets.

The Frock Shop seems tailor-made for one-on-one customer interaction. How will expansion change that?
We embrace the fact that we’re a small local business. We rent dresses for very special, often once-in-a-lifetime events, and we want to give our customers the service and attention they deserve. Because the Chicago market is so large, we could probably be successful as just a local business. But we get so many inquiries — especially from larger markets like Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and D.C. — that it only makes sense to expand online. We still want to be “Chicago’s Dress Rental Company,” so we will always have some type of physical location where clients try on dresses and where we can give them personalized service. The challenge is to make sure that this personal service remains present as we expand online.

Chicago is very business-oriented, naturally, but how good is its support of local entrepreneurs?
Chicago is unique in that it’s considered cool to support small and indie businesses. The only bad thing is that there’s a lot of competition — not necessarily from other dress-rental companies, but from low-cost/fast fashion retailers like Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Topshop and Zara — all of which are in Chicago. A lot of our client base shops at these stores. But we try to educate our customers to the fact that we rent very high-end, unique designer dresses that can’t be found at these stores. Plus, everyone shops at them — do you really want to see someone else wearing your dress at a big event? There’s a reason why designer dresses are so expensive, and you just feel so good wearing a dress that you know is a quality designer garment. So every small businesses has its negatives — but we try to turn them into positives. •