The bulk of Internet entrepreneurs have developed websites that cater to youngish consumers who are promiscuous technology savants–folks happy to reveal their most personal details to an online public and utterly comfortable gobbling up every gizmo or perk the digital realm has to offer. Halsey Schroeder could easily have been one of those business people.
At 28, Schroeder is the same age as Internet impresario Mark Zuckerberg. They both attended Harvard, although she didn't know him. Unlike Zuckerberg, she went on to graduate and then earned her MBA from the business school. She interned at the knee of retailing legend turned consultant Marvin Traub, who in the 1980s upended the definition of merchant when he transformed Bloomingdales from a quiet purveyor of clothing and housewares into an entertainment emporium. Schroeder quickly realized she was destined for retail entrepreneurship. But instead of creating a company catering to her contemporaries, she heeded the frustrations and complaints of her 70-year-old mother and her friends and launched an e-commerce site aimed at women of a certain age: Halsbrook.com. The name is a blending of her first name and that of Millbrook, N.Y., where she spent summers with her family.
The site's demographic is not quite the ready-for-retirement set, but its sweet spot is certainly within the AARP membership: 35-plus, explains Schroeder, although she notes its swings older. It is also a site aimed at women for whom a more classic and conservative—although not necessarily stodgy—wardrobe is a professional necessity, a subset of working women that includes a fair share of attorneys, business executives, and politicians.
Halsbrook.com launched Sept. 13 with hopes of settling into a niche as a less trendy version of Net-a-Porter, which features the most buzzed-about garments from high-end designers, and a more grown-up alternative to Shopbop, which tends to skew heavily toward the contemporary market. Halsbrook focuses on brands such as Max Mara and Piazza Sempione—stylish but not driven by trends.
The new website, however, faces a retail Catch-22. While it is meant to be a welcoming shopping haven for women who have been mostly ignored by fashion e-commerce, it is having a difficult time reaching those women because they are not shopping for clothes online. In particular, they are not regular visitors to Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest; they are not regular participants in any of the social-networking sites that typically serve as launching pads for these sorts of Internet ventures. "They're used to shopping online, but they're just moving into shopping for apparel," Schroeder says. "It's an uphill battle, customer by customer."
It will take significant wooing in the brick-and-mortar world to lure them into the virtual one. Once there, however, these “e-tail” newbies will find a site that is spare and simple to navigate. It posts a customer-service number on virtually every page. Sometimes they're first-time e-commerce customers. They're not as comfortable checking out, so we check out for them, Schroeder says.
Along the way, Schroeder is learning a few things about this older consumer—and about women in general. The website stocks sizes 2-16 whenever possible. But Schroeder initially focused most of her attention in the middle range of sizes 8, 10, and 12. But the real demand, it turns out, is at either extreme. Schroeder and her colleagues also couldn't find consensus among their customers on the sort of the models they should feature. The size 14s on the East and West Coasts preferred seeing clothes displayed on a size 2 because that was deemed a more aspirational look. The women in the middle of the country preferred a more empathetic size. Fifty-year old women on the coasts didn't want to see clothes modeled by obviously older women. At most, they wanted those who looked like they'd had life experience.
In short, no one wanted to be pigeonholed or isolated. They didn’t want to be perceived as some “other” in relationship to the larger fashion industry.
Leading Halsbrook’s merchandising is longtime Bloomingdales executive Rosemary Audia, and topping customers' lists of demands are dresses with sleeves, and hemlines that fall to the knee. No matter the attention paid to the first lady's toned arms and the common sight of sleeveless sheaths in the dead of winter; some 60 percent of customer suggestions have involved making sure dresses come with sleeves. When that isn't possible, Schroeder says, the site styles and photographs the dress with a shawl or jacket.
The site focuses on a restrained sensibility with bold colors and a reassuring mix of basic black. It is a curated boutique rather than one that tries to provide a little something to appeal to all comers. Indeed, this is not the kind of shop that would appeal to the 50-something woman with a hankering for flash and sizzle. There is little for the bohemian free spirit, either. Its offerings are classic and sophisticated in a decidedly urban way.
Two months into the venture, Schroeder still is figuring out her customer. But her MBA training and entrepreneurial optimism have her convinced there are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made—if only she can find enough knee-length dresses with sleeves.