With the help of the new CEO, Maurices is working to expand the store’s footprint, products and brand awareness
DULUTH – David Kornberg spent 15 years as a senior executive at Express, the fashionable mall retailer that attracts fashionable 20-somethings.
When he was then approached to become CEO of Duluth-based Maurices, Kornberg first decided to visit one of the company’s stores, which, with their brilliant lighting and decor, are quite different from the burst of Express.
But it wasn’t the store’s design that made a lasting impression on Kornberg. Instead, it was an outgoing sales manager who took him and his wife in, then remembered him on a second visit a few weeks later.
“I saw there was something extremely special about the brand,” Kornberg said. “It wasn’t just her. It was the company. It was the culture. And it was the people.”
Now, a year after taking the reins at Maurices, Kornberg is leading the charge to evolve the nearly century-old “hometown women’s fashion brand.”
The company plans to open a dozen stores this year, adding to its chain of around 900. A new line of girls’ clothes was launched this spring. Earlier this year, Maurices signed his first celebrity brand ambassador.
At the same time, Kornberg tried to keep the company true to its small-town roots. Its focus on quality, girl-next-door designs separates Maurices from cheap fast fashion and online-only retailers.
“Really what you’re seeing is genuine human interaction and there are so many instances in our time where people don’t have genuine human interaction,” Kornberg said.
“You go online and you don’t deal with anyone,” he added. “You walk into a Walmart, you’re in a 100,000 square foot store and you don’t see an associate to help you. Our associates really are like trusted stylists and friends to our customers.”
Kornberg, originally from England where he cut his teeth at major British retailer Marks & Spencer, spends about three weeks a month in Duluth, where Maurices opened a new downtown corporate headquarters complex in 2016.
“It’s the birthplace of the brand…but it actually fits very, very well with the type of hometown that we do well in. Honestly, when I arrived, I didn’t know I would like as much Duluth as I am,” he said.
Maurices competes with a wide range of low and mid-priced stores, such as Walmart, Target, Old Navy, JC Penney and Kohl’s. Its stores are usually located in small towns. While present in hundreds of malls, Maurices has many more locations in strip malls and outdoor malls. Its target clientele: women between 25 and 45 who like to dress comfortably.
Jaime King, senior vice president of design at Maurices, said part of her goal was to create fashion that is accessible and made to last.
And because coronavirus cases have declined and women are eager to get out more, King said she wanted to design versatile clothes they could wear to events, to work or on a date.
“It was exciting to see what I call ‘fresh air style,'” King said. “That idea of being comfortable but wanting to go out and how we’ve all learned to really appreciate that walk around the neighborhood or a hike or being out and having dinner and what that means for style.”
In late March, Maurices launched Evsie, a brand for tweens aged 8 to 12 that includes soft-colored t-shirts, dresses and jeans as well as shirts emblazoned with positive messages. The line is an opportunity to attract “a whole new generation of customers to Mauritius”, Kornberg said.
During the holiday season, Maurices launched a new collection of intimate apparel as well as an online exclusive sleepwear collection. Last year, Maurices expanded its popular jeans category with the addition of premium denim jeans brand Edgely.
Some of his biggest steps this year have been in marketing and working with celebrities. “There’s work to be done in terms of growing the business through brand awareness,” Kornberg said.
In February, Maurices teamed up with Home Edit organization experts Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin for a Maurices wardrobe giveaway as well as a closet makeover. The company has also tapped country music star Lauren Alaina as its first celebrity ambassador. She models Maurice’s clothes throughout his national tour and helps spotlight female heroes who will receive shopping sprees from Maurice.
Maurices plans to continue expanding its product line, particularly online, where the company has introduced new items such as maternity and swimwear. Business leaders want to add more stores that carry the Evsie brand and possibly test side-by-side Evsie stores, which would be next to Maurices stores.
Unlike other retailers that have closed stores in recent years, Maurices has remained fairly stable. It suspended new openings two years ago, aiming to open a dozen this year and about 20 the following year.
Kornberg said he thinks the brand could open another 50 to 100 stores, including more in Canada, where Maurices has about 40 outlets.
“There was a massive shift towards e-commerce when COVID hit, obviously because stores were closed in a lot of cases, but thinking about this business, we still think there’s an opportunity for us to continue to grow the store’s footprint,” Kornberg said.
When London-based private equity firm OpCapita bought a majority stake in Maurices from Ascena Retail Group in 2019, the retailer hovered around $1 billion in annual sales. Since then, OpCapita said Maurices has more than doubled its profit and nearly doubled its online business. Maurices declined to disclose specific financial results, but year-to-date sales were up 26%, Kornberg said. Kornberg said since last year, Maurices had produced results well ahead of pre-pandemic numbers.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges for the business. Maurices has to fight to stand out in a competitive market that has become saturated with clothing options, including online-only outlets like Shein that sell fashionable clothes at low prices.
Higher inflation may also result in less discretionary consumer spending. Rising freight and raw material prices are affecting prices. Kornberg said he expects customers to see minimal price increases for some of Maurices products.
As an outsider following company veteran George Goldfarb, who spent a decade as chairman and CEO and nearly 40 years in total at Mauritius, Kornberg also faces the challenge of helping a brand inherited to take risks and seize opportunities that she did not have before.
It’s something King thinks he does well.
“David has such a positive attitude and a how-might we [approach]”, King said. “He’s such a curious leader and I love that. Do you need someone to challenge you to think about what’s next? and ‘what are we missing?’ and ‘why can’t we?'”