Marissa Tilley poses with a dress form during a photo shoot with Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact.
Marissa Tilley poses with a dress form during a photo shoot with Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact.

Marissa Tilley’s website was never supposed to be the main platform. 

In November 2018, she opened Lady Black Tie in Andover, Massachusetts. The dress shop began as a brick-and-mortar location filled to the brim with prom dresses. It was less than 1,000 square feet.

She launched the website a month later, tinkering with it during school hours when traffic was light. The plan was for online purchases to accompany in-person sales. It wasn’t long until she made her first online sale – an extremely exciting feat, she remembers.

By March, her online sales were outdoing her in-person sales. Soon, she had to expand into another space as her brick-and-mortar shop filled up with shipment boxes. She opened a warehouse down the street to pack and ship orders. 

Since then, she’s expanded even more. Recently, she moved into a 10,000 square foot space in nearby Hudson to store the gowns and dresses, which sell for about $150 to $300. She has a team of about 17 employees between the in-person store and the warehouse. She gets about 10 orders every 2 minutes now – in peak months the business ships out 6,000 dresses.

Amidst the pandemic, many business owners have been turning to online sales to gain back lost in-person revenue. A recent Mastercard report found that the owners who made this move – many for the first time – were some of the most successful over the last few years. Entrepreneurs and business owners continue to expand their brick-and-mortar shops online to combat variants deterring customer traffic. 

READ MORE: Mastercard Report: 20% of the World’s Small Businesses Closed For Good During the Pandemic

Selling to the Online Customer

By focusing on online sales, Tilley’s potential customer base skyrocketed. In her store, she’s limited to a handful of folks each day and bound to effects like weather. But online, she can reach potentially millions. “I can have 10,000 people on my website in one day,” she said. “I can never have that many people in my store.”

As online sales kept climbing, Tilley learned how to run an ecommerce business. She kept a brick and mortar location – she still has it today. She learned selling successfully online is not the same strategy as in person – “they’re two totally different animals,” she said.  

When people shop in stores, they can see and touch the physical product. There’s also more room for browsing – people can go to a dress shop and find things they never thought of as they shop the racks. 

But online, people can’t try-on. They rely on photos, videos and descriptions to decide whether to add to cart. Videos have been extremely valuable to the website, she said. 

Tilley has found she can sell much more specific gowns online than in store because of the larger audience. A really niche dress that would sit on a rack for months can sell quickly online, she said. 

A large audience also means more interactions— most reviewing customers have given 5-stars, but some have expressed frustrations with communication and return policies in reviews on Google and Better Business Bureau. 

The Uniqueness of Clothing

When Tilley was starting her online presence, she worried about getting lost in the sea of online shopping. But that hasn’t been her experience. 

“What’s so cool about clothing is it’s not a winner take all market,” Tilley said. “There’s no one website that basically takes away the market share for everybody else, especially because there’s a uniqueness to clothing that people are always looking for.”

Focusing on key words has been essential in getting customers to her site, Tilley said. When people know vaguely what they want, they’ll often type it into Google and search through the shopping tab. For instance, if they wanted a yellow dress, they’d type that in and see what comes up. 

Tilley has thought through how people will search for certain dresses and make sure to include keywords that make sense for people to find her website and her products. 

“Google is the king, because when people are searching for something on Google, they have intent,” Tilley said. “Whereas on social media, they might see your dress picture and say, ‘oh, that’s nice’ and keep going.”

Social media is still important, though, Tilley said. It’s where you can keep your brand up and market your products. The brand has racked up thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers.

READ MORE: Problem Solved: How New and Holdout Business Owners Can Get Online

Going online allowed Tilley to move into design, too, she said. Because of the volume of dresses she sells, she can now make factory minimums and order bulk orders of original designs. The higher volume also allowed her to buy directly from factories, who only sell in bulk a few dozen dresses at a time, instead of buying from a middleman. This drives prices down for customers, she said.

Like many businesses, Lady Black Tie was set back a bit by the pandemic. With proms and formal events going virtual or being canceled all together, the demand for formal wear plummeted. The highest demand was for white dresses as brides skipped the expensive gown for their small ceremonies. 

Things are becoming more stable now, she said, as more events open and people are eager to dress up. She’s optimistic for 2022.

Here’s Tilley’s additional advice for business owners who are beginning their ecommerce journey.

  • Have patience. It’s a lot of trial and error of what works and what doesn’t to sell your product, Tilley said. It also may take a few tries to get your system down, such as shipping and order fulfillment processes.
  • Focus on the descriptions and keywords. Product descriptions are key to selling. Information such as how tall a model is, fabric contents and dimensions help people make decisions to purchase something online. 
  • Listen to feedback. Are customers constantly asking the same question? Start including the information in descriptions, she suggests.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit and connect with and