Ascena Retail Group (formerly Dress Barn, Inc.) has left the farm for greener -- but not leaner -- retail pastures. The apparel and accessories retailer operates about 4,000 specialty stores throughout the US, Puerto Rico, and Canada. Its 900-plus Dress Barn stores court women ages 35 to 55. Maurices, with some 770 locations, targets 17-to-34-year-old females in small towns with populations between 25,000 and 100,000. Its largest chain, Justice, courts "tweens" at about 1,000 stores and online. Its Charming Shoppes subsidiary operates the plus-size Lane Bryant and Catherines Plus Sizes apparel chains. Founded as Dress Barn in 1962, the company changed its name to Ascena Retail Group in 2011.
Justice is the company's largest retail chain, accounting for nearly 30% of fiscal 2014(ended July) sales. Lane Bryant, Dress Barn, and Maurices each contribute around 20% of sales, while Catherines rings up the remainder. Each of its retail banners has an online incarnation.
New Jersey-based Ascena Retail Group's 4,000 specialty stores are located in 48 US states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. The Justice and Maurices chains operate 35 stores and 27 stores in Canada, respectively. While more are planned, they contribute an insignificant amount of sales at present.
Sales and Marketing
Ascena Retail employs a variety of advertising and marketing strategies across its five retail brands. The company engages in customer research, promotional events, window and in-store marketing materials, as well as direct mail, online, and magazine advertising. In fiscal 2014 (ended July), the company spent $160 million on advertising and marketing, compared with $169 million the previous year.
Following a 41% jump in sales -- driven by the acquisition of Charming Shoppes in 2012 -- in the prior annual comparison, in fiscal 2014 (ended July) Ascena's sales increased just 2% versus the prior year, to $4.8 billion. The gain was due to both higher retail store and online sales at Lane Bryant (up 3%), Maurices (up 6%), and Catherines (up 4%), as well as the addition of new Justice and Maurices shops. The gains at those chains were partially offset by lower combined store and e-commerce sales at Justice, which dipped 2%.
Ascena reported total e-commerce sales of about $450 million in fiscal 2014, an increase of approximately 22% versus the prior year.
Net income fell 12% over the same reporting period, to $133.4 million, marking the third consecutive year of shrinking profits margins at the company. Margin pressure resulted from increased buying, distribution, and occupancy costs, and other charges.
Ascena Retail Group mines different retail niches, including younger women (ages 17 to 34), tween (ages seven to 14) girls, plus-size women (sizes 12 to 32), and "mature" women through its various retail brands. Acquisitions are key to the holding company's successful growth strategy, including Ann Taylor (2015), Charming Shoppes (2012), and Justice (2009). Concurrently, the company is working to right-size its store network, closing underperforming Dress Barn locations, and adding Maurice's shops and Justice stores, including locations in Canada in fiscal 2015 (ends July). While the company's international presence is relatively light, it's exploring other international opportunities for its five brands. Licensing presents an opportunity for overseas growth. Justice has 63 international franchise stores.
To control costs and increase efficiency, Ascena Retail has centralized certain distribution center, information technology, and payroll procession operations. It is also working to consolidate certain of its financial systems and processes across it five retail brands.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Acquisitive Ascena Retail purchased Charming Shoppes for about $900 million in June 2012. With more than 1,800 stores (and related e-commerce sites) under the Lane Bryant, Catherines Plus Sizes, and Fashion Bug banners, Charming Shoppes offered Ascena entry to the burgeoning plus-size market. It plans to focus on the Lane Bryant and Catherines brands, while shutting down Fashion Bug and divesting the Figi's gift business. In 2013 the group sold Figi's to Mason Companies and used the proceeds to reduce debt.
In 2015 the company doubled down on its plan to focus on older customers when it paid $2.2 billion for upscale retailer ANN, parent of career-wear maker Ann Taylor and its more casual LOFT banner.