Building a brand — don’t think of the money or success. Think, instead, about what you can offer as a brand. What makes you stand out from other companies like you? For us, here at VITAE APPAREL, our brand is all about body positivity and diversity, showcasing women of all sizes and nationalities. This paired with our exceptional quality, customer service and community, we capture audience’s hearts, not their bank accounts.
As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Selene Dior, founder and CEO of VITAE APPAREL, a Canadian based activewear and swimwear company that is all about celebrating women of all ethnicities, sizes, ages and otherwise. Starting the business at only 18 years of age, Selene has only further thrived in the last four years, becoming a great role model to a lot of young women as her business takes off worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Hey Orlando! Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here. Well, I’ve always been an avid swimmer, simply having a passion for it from a young age that allowed me to pursue it competitively for a large majority of my life. However, unfortunately, due to family financial issues, there came a time in which we could no longer afford it. In order to support my family and my future university tuition, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a swim instructor — and by the age of 16, I was a lifeguard. After I graduated from high school at age 18, I found myself constantly being disappointed by the lack of functional yet stylish swimwear I could find for summer. And so, I decided to create VITAE APPAREL — a fashionable yet practical swimwear brand that created stylish pieces that wouldn’t slip off playing water sports. I decided to design my own ideas from my years of experience in the water and created a sketch book. Six months later, VITAE APPAREL was officially born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I was at university, I didn’t have access to a car and so instead rode my tiny, old motorcycle around. One day I had around twenty packages I needed to drop off at my local post office. But as I was still working as a lifeguard at the time, I needed to do this before my shift started. Therefore, I was in a little bit of a rush and decided to tie two plastic bags full of packages behind my bike, as my backpack couldn’t fit them all.
So, I’m almost at the post office, stopped at a red light when someone starts waving at me frantically, telling me that I’ve dropped all these items. Panicked, I glance behind me to see that a whole bag had ripped at the bottom and all of the packages were gone. I was devastated, but had no time to freak out, quickly dropping off the packages that remained and rushing in to work. After my shift finished, I followed my tracks to find them and with no luck ended up asking the post man if he saw any of them himself. He told me that someone had dropped everything off that morning. Luckily, I got most of the packages back, although sadly some of the packages were ripped opened and the swimsuits were ruined.
Now I know NEVER to dangle plastic bags off a motorcycle (the tires chewed a hole into the plastic bags). And after that, I also implemented a more organized system for pick and pack, as sadly I had no idea which packages were dropped on the road, and which customers to email. A few of those damaged items were also the last I had in stock and going forward I have learnt to reserve inventory incase anything happens.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful for an abundance of people who joined me along this adventure including: my friends, my family and my mentors. But I am especially grateful for my grandpa. Whilst I was in high school, my mom wasn’t really around, as she was working in another country to support our family financially. And so, my grandparents took care of me. When I launched VITAE APPAREL, I was also in my first year of university, and having to juggle school, business, and work was tough. But my amazing grandpa stepped in to help.
During my first few months of running the company he would stay up and help me pick and pack orders, and even though he didn’t understand English, he would still help me write all of the addresses. When inventory arrived, he would sit there and count with me, even when his back pain was acting up. When I was in class and a customer needed to pick up locally, he would drive and drop off the parcels. He was always there, whenever I needed. Even now, 4 years in, he still comes to every pop-up shop, every warehouse sale, everything. He was always there. And he always will be.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes!! I absolutely love the Unofficial Shopify Podcast. This was the first podcast that truly provided me with so much value — to both me and my business. The podcast specifically interviews Ecommerce brand owners that set up their online store through Shopify. I found it so interesting listening to what other business owners have been through, listening to their individual stories and the suggestions they would give out to the listeners. I found all of the information so incredibly valuable and would recommend that podcast to any young entrepreneur. Some of our biggest improvements we have made on our Shopify store was learnt through listening to this podcast and it helped our company grow tremendously in 2020. So thank you to the business owners out there that are sharing their stories, remaining honest, transparent and supportive to other entrepreneur fellows.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe it all comes down to our community. From day one, I decided that I wanted to build a community of strong, independent and positive women that stood by VITAE APPAREL’s brand messaging of being confident in your own skin, no matter your ethnicity, background, or body type. And at the end of the day, everything we do is based off whether the action aligns itself with our brand message and morals. We have contributed to a whole range of socially responsible donations, volunteer work, and have always paid attention to what is happening around the world. Through supporting these causes that we really believe in, our community of likeminded individuals has only further grown.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Practice a self-care routine and use a journal! I decided to start a new self-care routine when Covid-19 hit and it really helped me both mentally and physically. I am also currently using the Best Self Co. 13 Week Self Journal. This journal is great for laying out important goals and helping you to stay on track of those important tasks.
And look — we all have those days where we feel a little ‘meh’ but try not to beat yourself up over it. Take a day off and clear your head so that you can start fresh and tackle your obstacles with a clear mind.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
This year has been extremely tough for a lot of brick and mortar businesses, but fortunately, as an e-commerce retail brand ourselves, we have experienced first-hand the tremendous growth for online retailers. Whilst Lululemon, Kroger and Costco have thrived, so too have a lot of local restaurants and other small businesses. Why? Because they all have one thing in common. Their ability to adapt and change. With lockdown and other restrictions taking over the majority of 2020 worldwide, more and more individuals are turning to online shopping. And in turn, more people are also looking to connect with brands on a personal level.
Therefore, these big brands have adapted and put more strategy behind their online e-commerce department to help make shopping convenient from the comfort of the customers’ own home. Paired with the exceptional customer service and loyalty programs these brands offer, people are more comfortable to shop online from the brands they already trust. So in order for other retailers to receive that same profit, it’s important that they look at their capability to adapt and change. Offer excellent customer service (e.g. free shipping, free returns), portray relatable brand messaging to capture audiences, remain active and consistent in the online space, the list goes on…
But trust me when I say that I’ve even witnessed many local restaurants and small businesses thrive simply from moving their volume online, offering discounts, loyalty programs and adapting to the new world we live in. So you can do it too!
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Sticking to your core brand values and brand messaging is what’s most important for any DTC brands. Building a real brand, showing your personality, putting a face to the company, connecting with customers on a personal level, listening to customers’ advice, building a community and creating an intuitive loyalty program that customers genuinely want to participate in is so incredibly valuable.
When Covid-19 hit North America, our brand immediately changed a lot of our messaging in order to be more relatable and understanding as to what was going on in the world. We began providing knowledge and tips on how to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. We collaborated with experts in the fitness space, cooking space, meditation space, and even entertainment space to help keep our customers entertained, always providing them with valuable knowledge.
When customers see this they really understand and know that you, as a brand, truly care about their well-being. By showcasing more behind the scenes footage and being in front of the camera (whether it’s on IG Live, Podcast, Youtube, or even if it’s just a simple post as a founder) you’ll continue to build and keep your community engaged. Try to show your consumers the process of designing and how an idea might come to mind. Show them the hard work, the passion, the tears that are put into this business. Show them just how real and authentic your brand is — and I promise, heads will continue turning your way.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A common mistake I often see is when new founders give up too easily or refuse to adapt. I have seen so many entrepreneurs who have turned their ideas into a business, but less than 5% of these entrepreneurs have actually stuck through all the ups and downs, learning and adapting to every obstacle along the way. It is easy to have an idea, but it is hard to turn that idea into something — so why not stick through it and learn the different ways to overcome obstacles?! Being flexible, hardworking, and always having the willingness to learn is so important to scale and grow your business.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
Great customer service goes a long way, it’s the hard truth. But great customer service also goes hand in hand with great customer experience. Our brand provides amazing brand messaging and valuable content to our customers on all platforms — but if we don’t provide the equal amount of great customer service, customers will not come back. With the surge of cost for paid media just to acquire a new customer, it makes repeat purchases and lifetime value so much more important. Running a retail business (whether it’s online or in person) is about bringing customers back, by providing a phenomenal experience and service, where customers will recommend you to their friends, family, and come back to purchase again. Word of mouth is also a great way to grow organically.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I believe this is because, unfortunately, many companies only care about their short-term goals and refuse to look at their long-term vision. These large corporations often forget about the essential factor of connecting with your customer and building a relationship with them. What they often forget is that it’s not just about making one sale that day — it’s about the continuation. By turning all of the attention onto ROI’s (Returns on Investment) and what works in the short-term, these companies are neglecting customer experience, which is the key to turning a first-time customer into a long-term consumer — a die-hard fan!
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Sadly, packages get lost quite often by shipping carriers, and one time a customer emailed us saying her tracking number showed that her package was delivered, but she hadn’t actually receive it. Thinking of this from a customer’s point of view, I knew how frustrating this would be. And so, without waiting for the shipping carriers to investigate and look into the situation, we resent her package. The customer was wowed by the customer experience we provided, especially because this was through no fault of our own, and further raved about our apparel and customer service team.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
YES! This customer expressed her gratitude to us before proceeding to post all over her social media about how pleased she was. That, in turn, provided us with a surge of new followers and exposure. And today, she’s still one of our most loyal customers… four years later. This just shows how a little compassion, sympathy, and understanding goes a long way.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
Of course — and I totally agree. For us, there are a few important ingredients that we deem super important in providing our customers with a fantastic retail experience…
- Outstanding customer service — put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Be personal. Be empathetic.
- Clear brand messaging — through social media, email marketing, newsletters, branding and website pages. E.g. in all of our messaging we include the importance of body positivity and inclusivity.
- Simple website to navigate — try to imagine how people might shop in person, how can they trust that the products they’re going to be receiving are genuine when they can’t physically see it?
- Community! — build a community and customers will keep coming back for more
- Reasonable return/exchange policies — always keep your customer’s satisfaction as a no. 1 priority.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
Well, expanding a little on what I mentioned before, I believe that these are the five most important aspects:
- Building a brand — don’t think of the money or success. Think, instead, about what you can offer as a brand. What makes you stand out from other companies like you? For us, here at VITAE APPAREL, our brand is all about body positivity and diversity, showcasing women of all sizes and nationalities. This paired with our exceptional quality, customer service and community, we capture audience’s hearts, not their bank accounts.
- Convey this brand messaging — make sure it’s clear, thoughtful and made to streamline your customers. Remember, this takes time. And you must reflect this within your work. Don’t just say you’re inclusive of all sizes and then have no content to back it up…
- Create a clear, easy to navigate and well-thought out E-com/retail store — if your website is hard to navigate, customers are more likely to move on. Add some features that make you stand out too! For example, we have a “shop by model” function that allows customers to see how that same outfit looks on an abundance of different sizes (instead of just the one) to cater what works for them best.
- Build a community — create a safe place for your consumers. This can be done through Facebook groups or simple email marketing. Either way, relating and emphasizing will always go a long way.
- And lastly, provide value and a great experience — remember, it’s not about selling. It’s about building relationships, trust and support so that every single customer wants to shop again. Host IG Live workouts, IG Takeovers, keep it fun, host events, host pop up shops, warehouse sale. The list goes on.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Ooo — I love this question! I think that I would start a charity/organization helping more women with mental health — especially related to self-confidence and self-care. A movement for everyone to love their own body. I think that, sadly, there’s so many of us out there who need that extra mental support and often just get ignored. So I’d love to make a difference in that area for sure!
How can our readers further follow your work?
LinkedIn: Selene Dior
Our website: www.vitaeapparel.com
VITAE APPAREL’S Instagram: @vitaeapparel
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!