Prom Dresses Are a Lifeline for Struggling Department Stores

Teens still flock to physical stores to look for their prom dresses, often with parents and friends. (Photo: Getty Images)
Teens still flock to physical stores to look for their prom dresses, often with parents and friends. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the talk of the retail death march, there’s one thing that seems to be impervious to the power of online shopping.

According to Yahoo Style’s exclusive new Prom Across America survey, the majority of teens across the country are still buying their prom dresses in stores, a lifeboat for struggling retailers drowning in a sea of savvy digital retailers, rental services and e-commerce.

The survey, conducted in April and sampling more than 1,700 people across the country, found that 67 percent of teens purchased their prom dresses in-store, even if they first looked for a dress online. While today’s shopping experience is non-linear, nearly half of all teens looking for prom dresses didn’t rely on online shopping at all, instead searching for their dresses and purchasing them in physical retail stores.

That’s less than adults who attended prom in the past — 64 percent of whom say they searched for and purchased their dresses in-store — but far more than teens who searched or purchased their dresses online exclusively.

That doesn’t necessarily mean shoppers are flocking to department stores, though. There are the specialty prom dress boutiques and pop-ups that emerge during peak-prom dress shopping season, usually between January and April, and are popular with local shoppers.

The survey results show that department stores’ success with teen shoppers varies, too, by region. Teens in the Northeast, for example, were far more likely to search for and purchase their prom dresses in-store compared with teens in the Midwest, who may not have as many physical shopping options.

And still, online shopping now accounts for a greater share of dress sales than in years past, as demonstrated by the ever-growing list of store closures and bankruptcies this year, including “everyone’s favorite prom retailer” BCBG.

To be sure, online shopping faces its own unique challenges in the special occasion dress space. It’s still difficult to vet websites for dress quality and ensure on-time delivery, as seen in myriad social media accounts of dresses that look nothing like the online advertisement. That’s enough to scare shoppers off their computers and into stores, it seems.

For all the headwinds retailers face — including a real estate glut and consumers that prioritize experiences over clothing — there’s still a fighting chance at survival. Deb Gabor, CEO of retail strategy consultancy firm Sol Marketing, says prom offers a window for department stores to connect with teen shoppers and convert them into lifelong customers.

“This is a huge opportunity for Lord & Taylor or for department stores who are really seeing hard times now, it’s an opportunity to access a demographic they’re not getting at,” Gabor told Yahoo Style. “Customer lifetime value is a key metric that retailers should be looking at. That is, how much are customers worth to them over their lifetime? If these retailers are creating this amazing, differentiated experience for prom dress shopping, once these young women go to college and look for formal dresses for their sorority or campus organization, once they go through their lives, they might look back to the department store they got their prom dress from.”

And the opportunity is ripe for the taking. In recent earnings calls, both Macy’s and Nordstrom executives said that sales in women’s apparel, “most notably active and dresses” in Macy’s case, were bright spots in otherwise bleak quarterly reports. For its part, Macy’s was among the top retailers for successful paid online searches for prom dresses this year, though it fell behind online-only retailer JJ’s House.

Other retailers are already rising to the occasion, so to speak. Lord & Taylor launched its national “The Dress Address” marketing campaign and revealed a new, dress-only floor in its New York City flagship location spanning 30,000 square feet, all in an attempt to get shoppers in stores — and keep them coming back.

Another possible lifeline for department stores includes catering to the underserved plus-size dress market. While teens who don’t fit the standard sizing chart might be able to find a plus-size dress online, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to try them on in-store like their smaller-sized peers, and so far, department stores haven’t made those sizes as accessible.

Gabor puts it best: “There’s all this white space with Gen Z shoppers, who are coming of age now. … That’s an opportunity that’s still untapped.”

Read more from our Prom Across America Survey:

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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.