Brand: Ashley Stewart
Retail Type: Women’s Apparel and Accessories
Region: United States
- Faster and frictionless checkout process
- Improved customer experience
In the late 1980s, real estate investor Joseph Sitt noticed some- thing strange about the urban redevelopment projects he was working on. Many of the big-name retailers he typically worked with were reluctant to invest in new locations in “inner city” areas. Ever the entrepreneur, Sitt realized that there was a huge opportunity staring him right in the face. The women who lived and worked in the neighborhoods his company was renovating had few good options for professional attire. In 1991, he founded Ashley Stewart, a clothing store for plus-size career women of color.
In 2013, James Rhee, a member of the Ashley Stewart board of directors, assumed full-time operational leadership. His simple plan: Build a business that places the black woman at the center of the narrative, a direct challenge to what he felt was a systemic problem with black women being invisible and “undervalued” in the consumer economy.
Like many large retailers, Ashley Stewart was struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing retail environment, including increased competition from online retailers. It was a tight few years, but by 2016, Rhee had guided the company back to profitability.
Today the brand remains a significant player in the urban clothing industry, with 89 locations in major cities across the U.S.
One of the costs of running such a lean operation was a lack of investment in modernizing their retail sales technology. As a result, Ashley Stewart urgently needed to update their aging and outdated POS systems. They had to act fast, as the company had only a matter of months before their old Oracle-based solution would be non-compliant with banking and credit card rules.
“We had a number of challenges, largely around compliance,” says Eileen Rizzo, Ashley Stewart’s Senior Vice President of IT.
“Our old Fujitsu registers were no longer supported by the manufacturer. We were not EMV and PCI compliant, and our registers were running on Windows XP, which hadn’t been supported for over five years.”
Rizzo says that her team looked at a variety of options, from upgrading Oracle to implementing a third-party tool that would “sit on top” of Ashley Stewart’s legacy system. “We immediately discarded these,” she says. “Our system was just too legacy to go that route.”
In addition to solving these compliance and technology challenges, Ashley Stewart’s team needed their new retail platform to be modern, mobile- friendly, and omnichannel-ready. The company needed to have flexible options available to them as they updated their retail strategies, from typical POS and ecommerce tools, to more advanced options like “buy online, ship to store” and “buy in store, fulfill from online.” As Rizzo explains, the company was looking for a “one-throat-to-choke” solution.
Unified commerce has also become a major part of the company’s long- term business strategy, with omnichannel tools being a must-have feature. “We were looking for a platform that could extend,” says Rizzo. “We needed our retail software to have omnichannel capability, although we didn’t need it from day one.”
“We didn’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we had one provider for hardware, a different provider for software, and yet another provider for support,” she says. “It was appealing to us to have the entire service in one partner.”
As Rizzo put it, “I find that KWI’s team is very helpful in saying, ‘Yes, we can do that for you.’”
One of the trickiest technology challenges for Ashley Stewart was adapting their complex, discount-driven sales model into a modern commerce platform. Rizzo notes that a large part of KWI’s appeal was their willingness to partner with her team, working together to reimagine the custom promotional and discount functionality that had been built into their old legacy solution over the last three decades. KWI proactively added this functionality to its platform before Ashley Stewart even signed a contract with them.
“Obviously, the usability and mobility of KWI is better than what we had before,” Rizzo says. “Not having these huge, behemoth registers taking up the entire counter is great. Our old system required multiple pieces of equipment, machinery, devices, drives, and all that other stuff. I know it sounds silly, but the smaller footprint of KWI’s Apple devices makes a difference. The stores just love the slick look and feel of it.”
Rizzo says that KWI’s iOS-based POS technology has also helped to streamline their retail operations, making in-person purchasing easier with the native mobile capabilities of Apple iPads.
“I would say that 90%, if not more, of our sales associates and customers are used to mobile phones and mobile devices,” Rizzo notes. “The usability and the ease of picking up and intuitively knowing how to use the KWI application is probably the number one benefit compared to our old legacy system.”
To continue meeting banking and credit card compliance rules, Ashley Stewart’s entire chain of 89 stores had to transition to the new platform by the end of 2021. The company has implemented KWI at more than 40 stores and expected to complete the rollout far ahead of that deadline. Even at this early stage, Rizzo says the company is happy with the results.
“It’s really a good, solid application,” she says. “ The usability is a critical and key component, which is what sold us.”
While Ashley Stewart is still in the early stages of their KWI implementation, the company is already starting to see the benefits of their new commerce platform. Their stores report liking the additional floor space freed up by the removal of the old checkout hardware, and the entire purchase process is faster and easier thanks to KWI’s native iOS application running on Apple devices. EMV and PCI card compliance also means that chargebacks have become less of a problem.
From Rizzo’s perspective, the biggest benefit of switching to KWI was future proofing the business and preparing Ashley Stewart for what lies ahead.
“When we started looking for a new commerce solution, our priority was the rising costs of the maintenance and support of our dying equipment and legacy software,” she explains. “ROI wasn’t really what we were looking at. We weren’t thinking about saving money, we were replacing a system that was at the end of its life.”
“In rolling out KWI, we’re replacing all of that base functionality,” she says.
“KWI has given us a platform that has the capacity to be extended, enabling us to move into omnichannel transactions, promotional capabilities, and mobility for our stores. It’s a solid product.”