Behind The Seams With Kleinfeld’s Mara Urshel

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Mara Urshel is assuredly a highly respected executive, having co-founded and managed Kleinfeld Bridal, New York’s iconic and the largest bridal boutique in the country for 17 years. Urshel began her journey with Kleinfeld as a business consultant from Gordon Brothers. Six months in, she brought in a proposal that required a crucial amount of spending to be made, but the management at the time decided to put the company up for sale instead. Urshel saw this as an exciting opportunity to take a chance and to revive Kleinfeld, shaping it into a massive bridal retailer that would eventually make the dreams of thousands of brides-to-be come true. She brought up the idea of buying the company to Ronnie Rothstein, her business partner and together, they’ve established Kleinfeld into a renowned bridal retailer, where brides-to-be travel from all over the world to receive the ultimate wedding experience.

Kleinfeld carries the largest selection of bridal gowns from top American and European bridal designers. They receive new styles nearly every day and Urshel says that they are constantly searching the world to seek out designers to add to the merchandising mix. They are staffed with close to 200 dedicated professionals which includes on-site stylists and bridal consultants, and custom fitters, sewers, beaders, embroiderers and pressers. The bridal store also has its own reality show on TLC­­, Say Yes to the Dress, a series that allows viewers to witness the private experience of the bride’s search for the right dress.

With around 10,000 gowns sold a year, Kleinfeld is unquestionably a leader in the bridal industry under the leadership of Urshel and Rothstein who call the store and its employees, their family. Urshel recently sat down with Dress for Success to discuss how she revived Kleinfeld to become a leader in the bridal industry, the growth she experienced as a senior executive at Saks Fifth Avenue and the importance of the customer experience when a bride-to-be shops for that perfect wedding dress.

Dress for Success: You were the Senior VP at Saks Fifth Avenue for 19 years prior to Kleinfeld. Did you find yourself having to fight for this role at first? Were there difficulties to overcome in this position? How did that experience influence your role when you took ownership of Kleinfeld?

Mara Urshel: My 19 years at Saks were exciting and gave me great pride in the initiatives I started and left behind. I was extremely dedicated and driven to success never realizing any obstacles. Promotions for Assistant to the VP of Couture to Senior VP of 55% of the stores volume came as anticipated. In my sportswear divisions I developed a strong classified business that led me to one day desire a “niche” business in a classification. Then one day I received an offer to be a business consultant for Kleinfeld in a turn-around situation. And voilà there was my classification waiting for me. I am as excited about Kleinfeld’s development and growth as I was in all my years at Saks.

DFS: What strategies have you implemented over the years in order to establish Kleinfeld as the leading brand for wedding fashion? How have the designers you carry and invested in influenced your growth as a major retailer?

MU: Strategic merchandising and unparalleled customer service are the most important strategies at Kleinfeld. It is important that we stay ahead of the market and competitive by offering the largest selection of designer bridal gowns in the U.S. The designers we carry directly influence our growth. We travel the world to seek out exclusive designers you can only find at Kleinfeld in NYC. This, plus our customer service, positions us as the leader in bridal retail.

DFS: Kleinfeld is known as the largest bridal retailer, catering to more than 17,000 brides a year. You’ve said that a reason for the success is the customer service, that you give clients your cell phone number to ensure that they can reach you at any time. What other ways do you continue to establish a service that is satisfactory for your clients?

MU: Every day we discuss new ideas and suggestions to improve the Kleinfeld experience. We are dedicated to making every bride happy and to stay on the pulse of bridal and listen to our customers. We are currently building a new website which will be optimized for mobile – since 60% of our web traffic is mobile. We are also working on creating more content to position ourselves as the leader in weddings – not just bridal fashion.

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DFS: When a client walks into the store, walking out with a wedding dress is the obvious goal. You’ve said that it’s the wedding dress that can bring tears to the client’s eyes and a fluster to her face. How do you and your sales team help identify the right dress for the customer?

MU: Sales consultants must be great listeners and know their product! The conversation our bridal consultants have with the bride is very important. The consultant must listen to the brides’ requests and how she envisions herself on the wedding day. Taking her requests, wedding location and budget into consideration, the bridal consultant must find the right dress to say ‘yes’ to.

DFS: When your clients leave with the wedding dress, what do you hope they take from their experience working with your staff?

MU: We hope the bride remembers us as the first and last (and favorite) stop of her wedding preparation. After a bride purchases a dress at Kleinfeld, she has at least 3 more visits to the store to alter her wedding dress. Along the journey she meets with a team of  Kleinfeld employees to bring her vision to reality – from her bridal dress selection appointment to her accessory selection, her fittings and her press and pick-up appointment – all 200+ employees are involved in making the process memorable.

DFS: How has the success of Say Yes to the Dress impacted the brand and your business? Are you grateful for the continued success of the show? In your opinion, what has made the show so successful?

MU: As we enter into the 16th season of SYTTD, we believe that the success of the show is not only because of the talented production company and network, but because of the brides and the dresses they select. The dress is the ‘star’ of the show. We are thankful that the show has turned a national brand into an international brand promoted in over 200 countries around the world.

DFS: Your business is continuously expanding into product offerings outside wedding fashion. What are the areas you have expanded in that you are most proud of? What more do you envision in terms of expansion? What’s next for Kleinfeld?

MU: Kleinfeld continues to expand our exclusive and private label dress brands. As well as support Kleinfeld Hudson’s Bay located in Toronto, Canada. We also have expanded into stationary. Kleinfeld Paper offers wedding invitations, save the dates, thank you cards and day-of stationary such as escort cards and menus. Kleinfeld has also added a hotel room block booking service – Kleinfeld Hotel Blocks. They find and negotiate the best rates for your out of town wedding guests. As well as, Kleinfeld Name Change, Hitch Switch, a unique free service to easily change your name, driver’s license, credit cards, etc.

DFS: What does it mean for you to take part in the experience of finding the dress for a woman in such a monumental stage in her life? And is there a particular client’s experience in the store that is most memorable and why?

MU: We are honored to be a part of the most important day in a brides’ life. We meet with over 17,000 brides annually and we love receiving wedding photos from every one of them!