CARS HOMES JOBS

Vera Bradley taking ‘direct’ approach

Thursday, April 18, 2013
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Daughter No. 2 was in search of a Vera Bradley “wristlet,” a small clutch to hold money, student ID card and cellphone that made a full-sized purse unnecessary.

We traveled by twists and turns through a packed gift shop — up and down stairs, across a footbridge (my recollection), backtracking — before finding the display of wares she sought.

She hesitated a moment at the price — how many days of meager tips did it represent? — but headed to the checkout anyway, prized new possession in hand.

That was my introduction to Vera Bradley Inc., a name synonymous with colorful, cotton-quilted handbags, luggage and accessories.

The company was founded 30 years ago by two women, friends who noticed “a definite lack of feminine-looking luggage” while on vacation. So they resolved to create their own and named the enterprise after the mother of one of them.

“We design products to accessorize a woman’s life,” the company says of its business.

To that end, Vera Bradley offers not only a handbag, wallet, eyeglass case and e-reader sleeve in the same pink-and-aqua paisley print or blue-and-lime floral design, but also a matching headband, keychain, beach towel, sarong and much, much more.

The explosion of colors and range of patterns can be overwhelming in the 250 square feet typically devoted to Vera Bradley products in gift and specialty shops. These independent retailers — some 3,400 last year — have long been the backbone of sales.

Since 2007, though, the company has added its own branded full-price and outlet stores, which now number more than 75. The stores, plus an e-commerce site, generate what are called “direct” sales; the specialty shops, along with kiosks in select department stores, ring up “indirect” sales.

Overall sales totaled $541 million in fiscal 2012, which ended in February this year, and for the first time direct sales surpassed indirect sales.

The company foresees “at least” 300 full-price stores in the U.S., according to its annual report. It has been opening stores at a rate of about 20 annually for the past couple of years.

This summer, the first full-price Vera Bradley store in upstate New York will open at Eastview Mall in suburban Rochester. A store at Crossgates Mall will follow in the fall.

“Upstate New York indexes high as far as purchases on verabradley.com, so we know we have a solid following of customers there,” company spokeswoman Melissa Schenkel said of the decision to add the upstate stores.

The shift in revenue toward branded stores likely will continue, Schenkel said, since “we plan to grow our direct segment more rapidly.” But, she added, “we will certainly stay focused on creating quality shopping experiences through all channels, including indirect and online.”

Vera Bradley aims to cultivate a loyal following that spans generations. Pint-sized handbags can be had that mimic Mom’s; duffel bags and flip-flops will appeal to the college-bound. And a new line of baby items — clothing, blankets and plush animals — was launched in March.

At my house, though, the Vera Bradley experience may be more fleeting.

Daughter No. 2’s search for a wristlet occurred a few years ago, when the designs and colors were favored by her teenaged crowd. The all-in-one clutch accompanied her to college and is pulled out occasionally.

“It was a ‘thing’ when I was in high school,” she says, “but not so much anymore.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at marlenejkennedy@gmail.com.

 
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