A 20-something launches site for the over-40 set

Launched by a 28-year-old, Halsbrook.com aims to help women over 40 look chic

New York TimesJanuary 16, 2013 

Young, stylish women may spend thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars trolling the Web for everything from naughty to nice at sites like Shopbop, Net-a-Porter and Rue La La. But what about their mothers?

Brands like Eileen Fisher and Talbots have websites that market to older shoppers, but they sell only their own lines, which generally feature conservative styles. Department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue use email to target specific audiences, but older shoppers still must sift through clothes and accessories for all ages.

To Halsey Schroeder, a 28-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, this was an opportunity to create a website for women over 40 who want to be “chic but not intimidating,” as she put it.

So in September, Schroeder started Halsbrook.com, selling outfits that include dresses, scarves, bags and jewelry.

“What we are offering is a high-quality curated collection, warm customer service, an easy-to-navigate website and a shopping experience that is elegant,” Schroeder said at her office, which – though the site’s name perhaps conjures horsy afternoons in Connecticut – is on Hudson Street in Manhattan.

Few young entrepreneurs are qualified to shop for mature women, so Schroeder brought in Rosemary Audia, who had worked at Bloomingdale’s for 30 years, most recently as a vice president for designer fashion.

Halsbrook does not go for cheap chic. Dresses are $300 to $1,300 and handbags are $175 to more than $1,000. Though the site’s wardrobe is far from trendy, it isn’t dreary, either.

Dressed in a classic MaxMara dress that is offered on her site (and that could have been borrowed from her mother’s closet) Schroeder said she believed Halsbrook would succeed because chains such as Eileen Fisher “can be a little dowdy.” As for Net-a-Porter, though it is not age-specific, the site does not take into account the needs of older women, Schroeder said. For example, some of Net-a-Porter’s choices for mother-of-the-bride dresses are sleeveless and the evening shoes have heels that are too high for walking down the aisle, she said.

“Our mother of the bride is probably not going to want a sleeveless dress, and if it is sleeveless, we pair it with a sweater or jacket,” she said.

Halsbrook’s rivals may disagree. Tracy Breslin, director of merchandising at Eileen Fisher, said Fisher offers a lot of “directional” pieces that are very related to trends including waxed denim, moto jackets and leather trim.

And many mature women, including Michelle Obama, Madonna and Net-a-Porter’s own chief executive, Natalie Massenet, have well-toned arms that they are comfortable showing off.

Halsbrook has attracted some top labels, including Piazza Sempione, Armani Collezioni and MaxMara. Audia’s experience helped lure Giorgio Armani.

The site, which carries 65 brands thus far, will have to fight for its niche in the dauntingly competitive world of Internet retail, but there are indications that Schroeder may be on to something. She said through mid-December she had shipped more than 300 orders at an average price of $650.

Sucharita Mulpuru, a retailing consultant at Forrester Research, a technology research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., said the number of shipments would not be significant except that the average price was high and the return rate, through November, was only about 13.9 percent.

“That is all good news,” said Mulpuru, because in e-commerce return rates are 20 to 30 percent.

One reason for the lower rate may be that “the educated client has her own sense of taste and style and knows what she wants,” said Redman Maxfield, a personal stylist in Manhattan.

Nevertheless, the challenge for a site aimed at older women is to get them to sit down at computers and use social media.

“Finding them is the really difficult thing,” Schroeder said. Marketing is “as much about what we do offline as what we do online.”

Initially the company “played around with Facebook and got zero return,” Schroeder said. A more successful strategy has been “at home” events, at which guests are advised on how to dress with clothes from Halsbrook. But that approach reaches only a small market, so Schroeder is trying to learn to use Facebook more effectively.

Schroeder has one advantage. Since the site is privately financed, “we are not under pressure to scale up very quickly,” she said.

It has been a family effort. After Schroeder left Harvard University, where she majored in the history of art and architecture, she worked for a small investment bank and then applied to Harvard Business School. Pretty quickly it was clear to her father, Jack R. Meyer, that his daughter was not really excited about the field. Meyer, best known for running the Harvard endowment for 15 years, proposed a Plan B.

“You hate reading financial reports, but you have read every fashion magazine since you could basically read,” Schroeder recalled him saying. “Why don’t you do something in fashion?”

So she interned with Marvin Traub, who headed his own consulting firm after running Bloomingdale’s for 22 years. Then she listened to her mother, Elizabeth Meyer, who had complained, along with a number of her friends, that she could not find clothes on the Web.

With the conviction that a website was waiting to be born, Schroeder raised $1.7 million from family and friends.

Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at the global consulting firm Kurt Salmon and a former chairman and chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue, said “the real question is whether she can generate enough business to justify a sustainable relationship between her company and major vendors who are working with bigger and more established retailers.”

And experts do not underestimate the competition from stores. “Older consumers grew up shopping in physical stores, so technology is not as innate to what they do,” Mulpuru said.

Still, if Schroeder can make Halsbrook work, she will help advance the lure of Web shopping for an older demographic. That would mean that all those years of reading fashion magazines paid off and that – at least in the Meyer home – father knows best.

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