Charmed Concept

Charming Charlie took a simple idea — arranging merchandise by color — and has parlayed it into a burgeoning fashion accessories retail empire, recognized in 2010 by the International Council of Shopping Centers as one of its premier “hot concepts.”

But founder Charlie Chanaratsopon will tell you that the plan to color-code the merchandise schematic — clustering identically hued items, from handbags to scarves to jewelry — came not from within the ranks of the chain’s talented retail team, but from the Charming Charlie customer herself. In fact, the chain’s operational head, Ron Batts, credits listening to the core customer as key to its success.

Senior editor Katherine Field talked with Batts about the company’s unique merchandising strategies, growth plans and the recent deployment of a Kronos workforce management system designed to elevate Charming Charlie’s customer service to new heights.

With all the accolades that Charming Charlie has received, how have you managed to keep from resting on your laurels and continue forging ahead?
We are constantly looking at how we can improve, both operationally from an execution standpoint, and how to serve our customers better. It’s a relentless focus on our customers.

What are your top priorities for 2011?
Personally, my goal is to improve as a leader. I’ve been doing this for a while and have had some great successes in my career, but, as you said, one can never have that ‘rest on your laurels attitude.’ From a company perspective, improving the customer experience is top of mind. That’s really what Charming Charlie is all about. Anything that would impede that is something we want to remove.

What would be impediments to your progress?
Anything that is task-oriented, that takes away from time with the customer. If we are spending an inordinate amount of time on achieving tasks, then that is taking away our focus on making sure we’re listening to the customer and doing everything we can to enhance her experience. And those, then, are the very things we need to simplify so that our people can return their focus to where it really belongs — on our customer.

Explain how your merchandising strategies have played an integral part in your store identity.
All of our strategies, especially on the merchandising side, have come chiefly from listening to our customers. Much of what you see in place in our stores is a result of what the customer wanted. Through Charming Charlie fashion accessories, a woman can complete her look for any occasion. And since we offer such a broad selection, which she loves, and there are so many occasions and moods to accessorize for, she wanted it to be easy. So that’s what we did. It’s very Garanimal.

What is Garanimal?
It was a children’s clothing concept that offered mothers a selection of children’s clothing that was easy to coordinate. I liken our merchandising approach to that same Garanimal-like concept. Replace the children’s clothing with fabulous fashion accessories and replace the children’s section with a boutique atmosphere and you have Charming Charlie. From jewelry to handbags to accessory pieces, when a customer is in a color zone, she can easily complete an outfit. Our role in the store is not to be highly consultative sellers, but rather to be Charming Charlie navigation experts, or tour guides. We not only help her navigate and discover the fashion accessories that Charming Charlie has to offer, but we give her the power to create her own look.

Customer service plays a huge role at Charming Charlie. How will your workforce management system enhance the customer experience?
Kronos [based in Chelmsford, Mass.] is a terrific system, and a proven winner to improve efficiency and for effective placement of personnel. But what we’re most excited about is that it is a seamless solution for our operating needs. New applicants to the Charming Charlie team will go through Kronos, of course, but what is unique in our development with Kronos is that we are going to utilize this as an assessment tool in our interviewing process. We are looking for people with the three E’s: high energy, high levels of enthusiasm and empathy. So we are working closely with Kronos to develop testing to help us identify people with those very traits.

Basically, we are working with Kronos to apply a matchmaking approach to help us find the right candidates. We’re excited to be involved in something so innovative.

Describe your current work force — number of associates and the kind of training each receives.
On average, we have a staff of 16 to 20 per store comprised of our associates, called ‘charmers,’ and managers. A highlight of our training is the newly refined Charming Charlie University, a virtual program that takes a lot of the elements of what we do, from visual merchandising to policy and procedure to our general operating structure, and encapsulates it into a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctorate of Charmology. Also, in partnership with the National Retail Federation, we are adding to our training menu by marrying elements of NRF’s online university with ours in order to create an even more thorough and effective training experience.

What are your growth plans over the next three to five years?
We opened 60 stores in 2010, growing from 36 to 96 stores, and that’s a pretty consistent indicator of the type of expansion expectations we have.

How often do you visit your stores?
My goal this year is to be out in the field at least 100 days or more. When I am in a store, my focus is on two things: making sure our field team is delivering a great customer service experience and interacting with our customers. I want to talk with them and learn from them and see how to make our associates better players. We have 18 skilled district and regional managers, and our objective is to give them not only an exciting place to work with lots of opportunity for growth but also a culture that is based on a great environment where people really matter.

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