“People ask me what was the hardest thing about starting my business…? And my answer is: not having somebody already doing it.”

While shoppers have been hiring designer dresses since the 1960s, no one had done so online before Anna Bance founded Girl Meets Dress in 2009.

According to Bance women wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time. “We need to cut down on the amount of products we buy as consumers,” she said at the IRC conference in London last week.

But Girl Meets Dress was way ahead of the sharing economy, which has only really taken off in the last couple of years. Millennial customers – those born after 1980 – have driven the sharing economy through their tendency to favour ‘experiences’ over owning ‘things’, as well as having a keen appetite to try out new online initiatives. According to research from Hammerson and Verdict, over half of millennials have used a sharing economy business – like Uber or Airbnb – in the last year, compared to only 16% of over 35s, with affordability and convenience cited as the reason.

“When Girl Meets Dress launched it was almost a little too early,” explained Bance. “But now with the sharing economy and collaborative consumption, I know it’s on the up.”

But as Bance said, the most important thing to remember is that millennials have less money to spend.

Adapt to change

She said retailers can’t just change their businesses to become one of these new-age companies overnight. “But if we can carry on trying new things and launching new things and reacting quickly, I think this is how our customers get excited – especially with the retail industry being in a state of flux and Amazon taking over. We have to react.”

Bance described how if she hadn’t been open to reacting quickly and adapting her business, it wouldn’t exist today.

When starting Girl Meets Dress, Bance thought it was going to be a “normal eCommerce website”.

“The only thing is the dresses have to come back after every order.”

She quickly realised there was a need for a lot of technology to support the business which needed both eCommerce capabilities and a booking system.

“Every single customer has a specific event date so we created a box where customers could put in that date and browse the available dresses.”

The booking system behind the scenes programmes the calendar for all 4,000 available dresses, analysing data including when the dress is booked out, but also the dates in between where it won't be unavailable due to cleaning.

Bance also had to reassure customers who had never hired dresses online before.

“We needed to add the express checkout to convert the customer, because if they hire once, they come back.”

Listen to the customer

Bance and her team also learned to listen to their customers, who range in age from 12 to 94. The products evolved and categories adapted, such as 1920s dresses after the release of the Great Gatsby film, as well as a section on the site to allow customers to buy their dresses.

“I know it sounds silly, but I’ve had a customer hiring a dress five times and then they want to buy it,” said Bance.

Girl Meets Dress also learnt that customers were not always ordering for the next day, but sometimes six months ahead of an event.

“To deal with that we had to adapt the offering so when a customer orders, they can try on the dress in advance, and then have it delivered for the event,” she explained.

“There is always going to be more questions and customer queries with this site than another eCommerce site, so we set up a live chat which was the best thing we did. I had a stigma attached to live chat, but now a lot of our business is done through communicating – some of our customers are picking up the phone and talking. A lot of customer care goes into lending them the dress of their dreams.”

Bance said it was also never her intention to open a shop, but due to increase customer demand, Girl Meets Dress decided to launch a showroom, along with a partnership with Uber to drive customers there for free.

“We couldn’t live without it now, most customers who come wouldn’t order from us if it wasn’t there – it’s just not the type of customer to do an online purchase.”