Mariella Perna | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mariella Perna

Background:  

Seamless operation contributes to Mariella Creations being voted the top bridal shop in Hartford Magazine’s Readers Poll for the last fifteen years. Antonio and Antoinetta Garofalo, original owners of the 45-year-old family business, have stayed active in the bridal and formal wear boutique their daughter Mariella Perna now runs.

The Mistake:

When my parents opened Mariella Creations (named after me when I was nine) … a bride’s search for the perfect gown started when she first entered our store. She usually brought along her mother, a girlfriend and a few magazine tears from the latest Brides magazine. The first thing I or another saleslady would do would be to walk the customer through all our closets.  If, let’s say, there were 500 dresses, we would start by letting them see every one. The customer would have been familiar with only a few high-profile designers like Priscilla of Boston and Vera Wang.

That all changed when the Internet became popular.  Brides searched the net to see styles of gowns before they went to a bridal store. Today’s bride comes into our store, her smartphone in hand, ready to call up her Pinterest wedding board and favorite dress picks. Some follow designers daily on Twitter feeds. These women not only have an idea about the style of the gown they are interested in; they have the serial numbers for several on hand when they first meet us.

Since I became president of Mariella Creations, I’ve always made customer service our top priority. One of the key services I’ve prided myself in was my and my salesgirls’ knowledge of our inventory. We would want to show the bride gowns X, Y and Z. But this better-informed customer would specifically ask to only see A! Sometimes we overwhelmed a customer with everything we knew, which could lead to confusion in the dressing room.

Eventually I had an “aha” moment!  If today’s bride came to us so much better informed than in the past, she did not have to see everything! Now, instead of first escorting a bride through the closets, we first show what a customer asks for. We ask her about the theme of her wedding and styles she likes. If the bride has a straight-fitted dress in mind and, after trying the style on, sees it doesn’t look so good on her, we will then make suggestions for other styles. 

I also realized we had to bring in more of the designers our customers saw online in place of our Vera Wang line, which was selling less and less.  We had taken Vera Wang into the store in the 1990s when it was fairly new and every bride wanted to wear a Vera Wang dress.  But as time went by her designs became either more expensive or a little more difficult to wear, as she catered mostly to a very tall, slender body type.

Our customers would ask for different lines by name. Remember – they were going on designer websites. “Oh do you carry Lazaro . . . Jim Hjelm. . . Pronovias?” When we heard a company asked for over and over again, we’d take a look at it and bring it in. It wasn’t difficult to let go of Vera Wang. We couldn’t keep selling dresses that just end up on the sale rack.

Sometimes we overwhelmed a customer with everything we knew.

The Lesson:

The bridal gown may be a tradition, but the business of selling the iconic garment is by no means set in stone. Thanks to the internet the bridal customer today knows more about what she wants as an individual and as a trendsetter. When social media began to connect her to all things bridal – round the clock – we at Mariella Creations had to reassess how it affected two of our priorities  – our inventory and, even more important, our relationship with this more knowledgeable customer. By listening more carefully to our brides we learned to serve them better.

Follow Mariella Creations on Twitter at @BuyBridal.

Pictured: Mariella Perna, left, with her daughter on her daughter's wedding day.