Digital Marketing Redux   //   March 4, 2024

Fashion retailers are gearing up for prom with bigger selections & more events

Most high schools’ proms are still weeks away, but fashion retailers are already getting ready for the big day.

On February 29, JCPenney rolled out a new prom collection with celebrity costume designer Johnny Wujek. The collection, which ranges from $59 to $250, includes gowns with removable straps, jackets with zip-off tails and colorful, patterned suits.

Meanwhile, Lulu’s Fashion Lounge is making prom a “major focus” of its first quarter and expanding its focus beyond bold and playful dresses to reflect the growing interest in pieces like structured corsets, Laura Deady, its chief merchandising officer, told Modern Retail.

Retailers have catered to prom shoppers for decades, but with so much competition in the space — including from Amazon and fast-fashion giants like Shein and Temu — traditional retailers are testing out new strategies to woo high schoolers. To meet demand and catch it early, retailers are adding more prom products, promotions and activations. JCPenney, for instance, upped its existing prom assortment and is throwing a large-scale prom event across 100 stores, Michelle Wlazlo, JCPenney’s evp and chief merchandising officer, told Modern Retail. David’s Bridal — which filed for bankruptcy last year — expanded its Diamond Prom Loyalty Program this year to give juniors special discounts on dresses, accessories and alterations.

Retailers are making these moves as nontraditional marketplaces get into the prom game. A search for “prom dresses 2024” on TikTok Shop results in dozens of dresses from sellers like Dress Outlet, Revolve and Cider. Some are listed for more than $1,000, while others go for $60. One dress sold by the store Hathaw Women Apparel is only $3.69, with more than 40,000 sold, according to the listing. A search for “prom” on Shein, meanwhile, returns dresses in all types of silhouettes, with many under $20, $30 and $40.

While most proms take place in April or May, JCPenney sees customers start to shop for dresses as soon as January to lock down their looks and avoid stress. Not only has JCPenney added a bigger selection to help with this, but it’s also brought in new types of pieces to reflect trends around different lengths, fits and patterns. “Anything goes right now,” Wlazlo told Modern Retail, pointing out pieces like floral jackets or shorter dresses — a contrast, she said, to her own prom experience of ball gowns and tuxedos. “We’ve been able to have a lot of fun over the years, because that’s what the customer wants.”

JCPenney also hopes to become a hub for proms through events. On March 23, it will host a prom shopping day at 100 stores across the U.S. JCPenney will offer customers an extra 10% off shoes, accessories, dress shirts and dresses, and high school and junior high school students can get 20% off a blowout, pressed nails or other services at one of the JCPenney Salons. Once they’re prom-ready, attendees can get their photo taken at JCPenney’s portrait studios. While JCPenney has held prom events before, it has never done so at such a large scale and in such a coordinated effort across its stores.

“It’s really a chance for people come in, shop, enjoy a little something, try some makeup and hair things so they can come back and be ready for their prom when it actually comes comes up,” Wlazlo said. “Really, we’re making this about the whole feeling [of prom], and we’ll do multiple events throughout the weeks to come.”

Retailers are also starting to update their dedicated landing pages for prom. In January, the clothing retailer Windsor launched an online dress shop with 900 dresses, plus shoes and accessories. More than 260 dresses are under $50, and more than 570 sit between $50 and $100. Men’s Wearhouse, meanwhile, has a “Prom 2024” section on its website that offers complete jacket or tuxedo sets at $249.99 and $279.99, as well as standalone pieces like solid ties, dress shirts and pre-tied bow ties. Lulu’s Fashion Lounge has a curated prom page with more than 800 styles.

Already, retailers have sent out messages advertising their prom offerings. Forever 21 sent an email last Tuesday with the subject line, “Make an entrance at prom with stunning styles!” Milla, which sells designer dresses online, sent an email on Thursday promoting “budget-friendly styles for your prom night” and “prom dresses under $500.”