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Delia’s Relaunches to Capture the Tween Market It Just Lost

Delia's

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It's two weeks away from relaunch and Delia's has kicked the Instagram action into high gear. For the first time in three months the brand posted nine new photos to the platform on July 24th, revealing the cover of the August 2015 catalog. It created a small frenzy among the brand's 321,000 followers.

"Can't wait to get my 8th grade graduation dress!!!!!!!! So excited!!!!!!" one comment reads. A user who lists out her girl squad in her bio says she hasn't been shopping for clothes since Delia's shut down. Middle schoolers with bios marked by the date they met Taylor Swift are frantically tagging their friends. At one point, the catalog cover model chimes in. It's real: Delia's — still written out as "dELiA's," of course — is coming back, as an online-only webshop.

Even though it has a core group of loyal fans, a lot has changed since the last time Delia's was relevant to the retailer's target demographic. The brand took a huge, public fall at the end of last year when it declared bankruptcy and liquidated all of its brick-and-mortar locations. When the news broke, dozens of eulogies spread across the internet, accompanied by slideshows of '90's-era Delia's catalogs and tearful references to denim maxi skirts and flared capri pants. The brand hadn't looked like that in years: the 2014 Delia's could have passed for a more mom-friendly Hollister, but nobody had words to spill on that version of the brand.

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The post-bankruptcy Delia's wants to go back to its roots — not to singlehandedly bring chokers back, but to tap into that invisible force that originally connected the brand so well to young teenagers. The new management believes there aren't many exclusively junior retailers crowding Delia's out of the market, but figuring out what young teenage girls want to wear is not an easy task.

"Girls today are going from a Justice or a Gymboree or a Children’s Place straight to Forever 21," Patricia Johnson, Delia's new executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, tells Racked. "And that sometimes is a little scary, so [she's] trying to find a place where she can go to that feels safe, that feels on trend." Just outside of Delia's office, supersized versions of Gap, Victoria's Secret, Forever 21, H&M, and dozens of other retailers desperately scream for attention on a steamy, overcrowded couple of blocks known as New York City's Herald Square. The pickings do look slim for a 12-year-old girl who wants to dress like a 12-year-old girl, at least on the street.

"Girls today are going from a Justice or a Gymboree or a Children’s Place straight to Forever 21."

E-commerce, however, is an entirely different landscape. "I think that it's a very tough environment, especially for that customer," Rebecca Duvall, a retail analyst for BlueFin Research, tells Racked. Delia's skews younger than the Forever 21 and H&M crowd but older than a Justice or Limited Too customer, and Duvall points out that it's a tiny window of time for any brand to try and build loyalty with its customers, let alone one that has already tried and failed once. On top of that, there are plenty of mammoth digital retailers like Amazon that are already servicing that customer and her mother.

For Johnson, Delia's is her start-up experience. Before she joined the brand in June, she worked at Sears Holdings as the divisional vice president of Kmart women's apparel and accessories. "What really drew me in — not that I haven’t loved my experiences at other places — but I love the opportunity to just really kind of drive the process and get your hands dirty and really live here everyday and really be a part of the business," Johnson says.

Delia's 2.0 will live completely online, with the exception of a monthly mailed catalog. The digital makeover features a shoppable Instagram, a "haul-o-fame" that features customer haul videos, a "Surprise Me" button that dishes up a random selection of product for spontaneous shoppers, and an email newsletter that functions like a friendly fashion news update instead of a constant stream of promotional material. Products are sorted by Delia's hallmarks, including "graphic tees," "jeans," "dresses," and "converse" rather than the typical "tops," "bottoms," and "footwear" categories.

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There's a Snapchat presence too, although the team is "still working through" how to use it best. "It’s definitely a difficult thing to try and shop off of because it disappears so quickly," Johnson acknowledges. "But we have a great team here that really keeps on trend with that. We're trying to be really good at a few social media outlets instead of trying to be on everything because that’s not where she’s shopping." Delia's is putting its money on Instagram and Snapchat.

The brand is not new to social media, however. Delia's current social presence (over a million followers across several platforms) was built on the back of the old brand, the one that went bankrupt eight months ago. This time the approach is different, Johnson says, because the team is focused on creating an interactive experience for young teenage girls instead of just trying to sell them clothes.

The brand's Facebook account boasts 719,000 likes but, as Johnson puts it, "we’re not going to use a bunch of Facebook, because that’s really talking to Mom." It's true: when Delia's posted its comeback on Instagram, middle school girls rejoiced. On Facebook, middle school girls's moms rejoiced. This isn't to say that moms aren't carefully considered as well, according to Johnson, since they are typically the ones purchasing clothes for their daughters. But getting the girls's approval takes top priority.

"There’s something very exciting about having a place that is truly for her on the web because no one else is really doing that," Johnson explains. "You think about an Asos or other online retailers for juniors, they kind of age up a little bit and get a little sexier but they don’t really have the social aspect of it that we’re really trying to create. We're trying to make sure that the site is exciting and interactive and a place she wants to go to."

"We're trying to make sure that the site is exciting and interactive and a place she wants to go to."

When it comes to the clothes, Delia's isn't relying on nostalgic millennials to carry its sales. Instead, the reformed brand is aiming to look more fashion-forward. "It’s not to say that we’re scrapping everything that Delia’s was about, because it was a great brand and it still will be," Johnson says. "It’s sort of enhancing what Delia’s was, so we're still focusing in on things we think are important to her like graphic tees, dresses, and denim. The brand will definitely be grounded in those key categories, but then also introducing a little bit more fashion that ages it up a little bit."

Johnson describes the vibe as similar to Brandy Melville, without the exclusive one-size-only products. Delia's prices tend to run a bit higher than Brandy's, but the site launch comes pre-loaded with promotions. Denim is $49 apiece but each pair falls under a buy one get one 50% off sale. There's free shipping on all orders over $75. The sizing runs from 00 up to 13 and, in some cases, 19. Denim inseams go up to 34 inches.

The new catalog promises a more diverse cast of models, in both sizing and ethnicities, but it remains to be seen whether Delia's target demographic will appreciate a monthly mailer. There's not too many retailers out there trying to grab the attention of young teens by way of the US Postal Service in 2015, but Johnson says the approach just adds to Delia's charm. "We're all talking about social media, but there’s also this excitement of getting something in the mail," she explains. "It’s sort of a novelty for her, right? So getting the catalog in the mail is sort of this retro piece of it. Some girls don’t remember getting anything in the mail. We want them to get the catalog, we want them to talk about it, we want it to be an invitation to drive her to the site."

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The approach contains threads of an older Delia's, when the catalog was one of the brand's main sources of revenue. In 2005, the brand's 62 retail stores accounted for $64 million in net sales, compared to $75.9 million in e-commerce sales, driven mostly by the catalog. In 2006, retail net sales hovered at $68.7 million but e-commerce sales had jumped to over $105 million.

Within the next decade, retail sales kept climbing — for a little while, anyways — while e-commerce began to fall. In 2010, Delia's 109 retail stores brought in $122.4 million in net sales while e-commerce accounted for $86.5 million in sales. The brand's last annual report, for 2013, showed $95 million in sales coming from 101 retail stores, while e-commerce and catalog sales combined barely scraped together $40 million (it had stopped breaking out the categories).

Up until the brand's last annual report as a public company, it was describing the website as "designed to complement the catalog and offer the same merchandise as in the catalog, as well as additional products, colors, sizes and special offers." Without any brick-and-mortar stores, Delias.com can no longer afford to operate that way. When the brand was bought out of bankruptcy in February 2015, a completely new management team was put in place to ensure Delia's would be different this time around.

However, no matter what happened to Delia's in its 20+ years of existence, it always managed to hold onto a high level of brand recognition. The new Delia's has to figure out how to succeed where the old iteration failed: delivering a product that non-nostalgic teenage girls want to buy. "Just because you love the brand, you still have to give her what she’s looking for," Johnson says. "There was a love for the brand, and sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do is get brand recognition. That was there, so that’s the easy part. The hard part is now making sure that you live up to that promise. And I think that we have."