How two best friends grew their niche ecomm biz by 264% over the past year

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you sell at East Meets Dress and how you got started?

My name is Vivian and I’m one of the co-founders of East Meets Dress (EMD). We’re the first modern fashion company to bring Asian-American representation and inclusion to the traditional wedding industry by combining contemporary cultural designs, quality craftsmanship, and a dedicated customer experience. 

We’re in a pretty niche market within the larger wedding industry. Our core products are our Chinese wedding dresses (known as cheongsams or qipaos), but we also have a collection of men’s outfits, dress accessories, wedding favors, and mother of the bride/groom dresses.

The company was inspired after my co-founder Jenn’s experiences as a recent bride. She wanted to wear a cheongsam for her wedding tea ceremony to honor her parents and heritage but finding a modern design that fit her aesthetics turned out to be near impossible. At the time, her options were limited to suspicious onlines sites or stores in Chinatown with poor service and a narrow selection of styles and sizes. Ultimately, Jenn resorted to custom-making her cheongsam at a local tailor.

As her Maid of Honor and best friend, we both felt that Asian-American brides shouldn’t have to be confined to low-quality options or scouring Yelp to find the one tailor who could make a quality cheongsam from scratch. Thus, we decided to start East Meets Dress to help other brides around the world celebrate their culture.

What did it take to get your first products in stock? Has that changed since you started? 

The very first dress that we launched was actually Jenn’s own wedding cheongsam design. 

In the beginning, my co-founder and I were super scrappy and wanted to move quickly to achieve product market fit so we started with just one dress on our site. 

Since neither of us had much prior experience making dresses, we would go to Joann’s, an arts and crafts store, to touch and learn about the different fabrics. We also partnered with a local tailor and shadowed her each week to learn about the craft of making a cheongsam.

Our first manufacturing partner came from a friend’s connection who was able to introduce us to a cousin in China who then introduced us to a dressmaking business run by two siblings, and we’ve been working with them ever since.  

We were able to show them our dress designs and work with them to select the fabrics we wanted to use. We’ve also since expanded our dress suppliers who all have decades of experience specializing in the craft of making cheongsams.

Since most of our dresses are custom made to the bride, we were able to reduce our inventory costs in the beginning and slowly grow our production along with our demand.

How did you get your first sale?

Before we launched our Shopify store, we tested our initial concept by spending a Friday night creating a free landing page via Unbounce and running a $50 FB ad to see if anyone within our target demographic would be interested. Over a weekend, we got 40+ interested subscribers, which gave us the initial reassurance that there may actually be a market for this. 

We then personally reached out to every email we received and asked if they would hop on a call or answer a few questions to help us better understand what they were looking for. One of the brides who subscribed to our initial landing page became our first customer!

Getting our very first customer was both exciting and terrifying–we were definitely not 100% confident that everything would go according to plan. Thankfully, her dress came out great and this was our first big win. To this day, we still remember the joy of bringing her dream dress to life.

What obstacles and challenges have you overcome along the way?

Since a majority of the cheongsam dresses we make are for weddings, delivering every dress on time is a huge priority for us even if it means hand-delivering it ourselves if there are any rushed orders or unexpected shipping delays. We’ve also launched a Ships Now collection of readily stocked dresses for urgent brides to help mitigate rushed orders.

Another challenge is that our cheongsam dresses are often custom made for each customer, so we’ve come a long way in terms of improving our measurement instructions and double checking measurements to ensure that it is a good fit. Nowadays, we use a Typeform survey with photos to provide instructions on how to take the measurements, and we have a measurement checking tool to flag if any need to be double checked by the customer before we take it to production. 

What influenced your decision to use Shopify?

It was a pretty easy decision to use Shopify. We already knew of several businesses that we shopped from that were run on Shopify, and the setup seemed quick and easy. Shopify combines beautiful templates for the frontend with a powerful engine for the backend.

We also didn’t have to worry about the checkout process or sending confirmation and shipping emails to customers–it was all seamlessly provided to us by Shopify. For any ecommerce brand just starting out, Shopify is the best option out there.

What was the process like to get started? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you know now?

Since our business has been entirely bootstrapped from day 1, we were initially very scrappy and tried to do everything ourselves from our photography to our website design.  

After a year, we finally decided to pay for a monthly subscription for HeyCarson, where you can get a developer’s help for a variety of technical tasks. That allowed us to finally tweak and customize our website to our heart’s content. While it was good to start with a free theme and learn what our needs were at the time, we would recommend setting aside a budget to make your website fully optimized for your customer flow. As an ecommerce brand, your website is the first and main thing your customers interact with, so it is worth investing in a seamless experience. 

SEO is also definitely something that we wish we had kept top-of-mind while building out the rest of our site. When we finally decided to focus on SEO, we had already published many blog articles, uploaded images that were not sized properly nor titled correctly, and named products in nonoptimal ways. It was a bit of a painful process to go back through all of our articles, products, collections, and images and make them more SEO-friendly. Thankfully, the Crush.pics App was able to help optimize our image sizes easily. 

Reviews are also an important aspect of building a brand that compounds over time. While the Shopify Reviews was an easy app to add to our shop, we didn’t automate emails to ask people to review our dresses until later. While we made sure every customer loved their dress, we wish we provided an easier way to provide a testimonial to capture our customers’ feedback more early on

What Shopify apps do you currently use? Which apps are most important to your business and why? 

Infinite Product Options: Since our collection of bespoke cheongsam wedding dresses allows customers to customize different aspects of the dress (color, sleeves, train, etc), this app is integral to our business operations. For each dress, we can add many different product options and also include surcharges based on the options they choose. 

Instashop: Our cheongsam dresses are of course very visual. We use this app to showcase all our beautiful brides’ photos in our dresses, and even allow our customers to see which particular product they are wearing. Instashop also has a feature that allows you to showcase customers’ photos right on the product page, which adds social trust to our brand and our product quality.

Parcelify: We wanted to have more control over our shipping options since we offer additional expedited production fees if brides wanted to rush order a dress. Parcelfiy gives us the flexibility to add and customize the different shipping fees for our products and lets us include descriptions to explain the various delivery options. 

Zapier: This app makes our operations so much easier. Because we use a variety of different apps like Coda for our customer management, Google Sheets for our financials, and Klaviyo for our email marketing, for all the little tasks we have to do, we use Zapier to automate them

What theme did you choose for your site and why?

We chose a paid theme, Modular. We initially started with a free template, but after a few weeks, we made a list of features we wanted to have in our upgraded site, and Modular checked all of them. The style is very clean and minimal, with heavy brand imagery to convey our story and products.

It has important features built-in already like an FAQ page, a site-wide banner, a mega navigation menu, an instagram section, and a customer testimonials section.

As an added bonus, the customer support team is extremely responsive and helpful. They were able to resolve many of the questions we had and went above and beyond in terms of customer service. 

What strategies have you used to attract more leads and grow East Meets Dress?

SEO:

As a company in a pretty niche industry, we knew SEO was where we could shine. From Jenn’s wedding planning experience, we already knew there was a lack of resources available online about Chinese wedding dresses and how to plan for a modern Asian-American wedding so we invested heavily into writing useful blog articles. One of our most popular blog articles is titled 30 of the Best Ideas for a Modern Asian Wedding, which brings in 1,000 visitors per month, organically.  

Pinterest is another area that is super popular for wedding planning. One of our most successful pins is for our Marilyn cheongsam dress which receives around 250k impressions per month. 

Ads:

Since we have a very targeted demographic, Facebook and Google ads were a great way to attract customers when we first started. Our sales cycle is also much longer than typical ecommerce stores since brides will start planning for their wedding a year or two in advance but not purchase until a few months before their event so FB ads retargeting has become more effective in driving conversions. 

Incorporating Offline Experiences: 

Some of our most popular growth strategies have been providing our customers with parts of the retail and in-person experience that they like most about a traditional bridal company (i.e. trying on dresses and seeing them in-person). Thus, we created our Sample Kit product and hosted a weekend pop-up shop, which generated some of our highest conversion rates. 

What are some of the most effective ways that you interact with your customers?

Since we’re an online only ecommerce business, which is not very typical for a wedding dress company, we’ve had to be very creative with how we interact and develop trust and rapport with our customers.

Live Chat:

One of the most effective ways we’ve done that is through our Live Chat app called Chatra.io. Any bride browsing our site can click on the chat feature and talk to a real live human and have all of her questions and concerns answered personally. We also have automated triggers embedded into the app to provide a more personalized touch.

Style Quiz:

Additionally, our style quiz has been a very popular and interactive way to connect with our customers. They answer a few questions on the quiz and then get sent some personalized design recommendations to help them find the perfect dress for them.

Personalized Emails:

Given the longer decision making timeline for wedding dresses, we also follow up with personalized emails with our potential customers to offer additional support and recommendations as they think through their dress design.

Are there any metrics you can share in terms of order volume, monthly sales, increased revenue, growth %, etc.?

We’ve grown 264% over the past year in terms of revenue, tripled our monthly customer volume and sales, and doubled our team.

In terms of product selection, we’ve grown from 1 design to over 50+ dress designs in our collection and our men’s and accessories collection have increased our revenue by 30%.

A little over a year ago, we had one happy bride (our very first customer) and now we’ve had over 1500 happy brides who we’ve helped celebrate their culture in style.

To what do you attribute those positive metrics?

From a product perspective, there are three things that make our brand stand out and which we attribute a lot of our success to:

    • Modern Designs & Custom Sizing: Our dresses are a unique blend of modern silhouettes combined with traditional cheongsam elements. Each dress can be custom made to your measurements to fit you and not the other way around.

    • Quality Craftsmanship: Our dresses are tailor-made by experienced seamstresses using premium fabrics to ensure ultimate quality and comfort.

    • Dedicated Customer Experience: Finding the perfect cheongsam is an important decision and investment and we’re always here for our brides every step of the way (via chat, email, phone, text).

From a company culture and day-to-day work perspective, both my co-founder and I believe in embodying a fast, resourceful, and flexible mindset. We believe in starting small, but immediately and making a 1% improvement to our business every day, no matter what. This type of persistence and consistency is inspired by one of our favorite books, Atomic Habits. 

What are you working towards now? 

We’re currently in our rapid growth phase and just had a very successful pop-up shop so we’re also going to see how we can continue to utilize that as a growth strategy. 

At the same time, we’ll also be working towards improving our operations and automation of certain tasks since we’re still a very small and lean team of four.

In the near future, we’re also excited about launching a new plus-size collection and plan on continuing to expand our product line to include more accessories, men’s outfits, mother-of-the-bride/groom and bridesmaids dresses. 

For the long term, we want East Meets Dress to be a brand that helps elevate Asian American culture and lifestyle. 

Are there any blogs or other resources that have been helpful for you?

Books:

Blogs/Articles:

Based on your own success, what advice would you share with others who might be just starting out with Shopify (or with ecommerce in general)? 

1. Be resourceful but don’t be cheap.  

There’s a difference between being resourceful vs. being cheap. For example, before we invested in nicer photography and hired an SEO agency to help, we would first see if we can try things out on our own before outsourcing or committing a larger budget to that project. 

We also leveraged many free trials of tools we were interested in before deciding to commit to a paid subscription and only if that tool/service truly helped optimize our time (since that was just as valuable as money). Ultimately, you should be willing to invest money into things that will have long term benefits and help the business grow exponentially rather than save for the short term and grow linearly. 

2. Start small, but start immediately.

You don’t need to have all the answers before getting started. If we were told that we had to have 50 dress designs, beautiful photography and everything figured out before launching, we probably would’ve given up. Instead, we started with one dress design and a simple Shopify template and were able to get immediate customer feedback to help improve and grow our company.

3. Spend more than a few minutes thinking about your brand and name. 

When we first launched, we wanted to execute on the idea quickly and didn’t give too much thought to our branding or name. In fact, we were called Modern Asian Bride for the first few months before we renamed ourselves East Meets Dress. But we had to change quite a few things on the backend and legally (and Shopify still retains the old name). Luckily, we were still in the beginning stages so it wasn’t that terrible and it didn’t affect our SEO much yet, but we certainly underestimated how much work goes into rebranding once you’ve established yourself more.

Where can we learn more?

Website: www.eastmeetsdress.com

Instagram: @eastmeetsdress

Pinterest: pinterest.com/eastmeetsdress

 

Jenn & Vivian - Co-Founders of East Meets Dress

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