Taking Charming Charlie Online

"Houston, we have a problem."

That's the message that Kim LaFleur, vice president of e-commerce, Charming Charlie, relayed from her Culver City, Calif., office to company headquarters in Texas from after the company went live with its e-commerce site in October.

What was the problem? "We [were] out of inventory." (Not all of it, of course, just certain items.)

When Charming Charlie launched its site — with about 2,000 styles out of its approximately 10,000 in stores ? the company didn't know what to expect, said LaFleur, keynote presenter last week at Apparel's Tech Conference West, held at FIDM in Los Angeles. The response the retailer received was overwhelming: 700,000 visits during its two-week launch promotion (the company offered 10 percent off initial orders); 34,000 submissions to a gift card giveaway contest; and 100 styles of scarves sold out in three days.

A little history
Charming Charlie is a fashion-forward accessories boutique, offering absolutely everything a girl or woman might want to complement her outfit, from toe rings and necklaces, to purses and scarves, to watches and hair clips. "If
fashion is fun, then accessories are the life of the party," says LaFleur. "We want to make sure our shopper feels fabulous."

If you're wondering, there is a real Charming Charlie. That's Charlie Chanaratsopon, founder and CEO of the company, whose family was in the silver jewelry business, and sold its wares to high-end retailers such as Nordstrom. 

Observing the business up close, Chanaratsopon was inspired to make jewelry and other accessories affordable to the everyday woman, and, after graduating with his Master's from Columbia University, set about to launch such a business around that concept. In 2005, he opened his first store in his hometown of Houston; to his surprise, he saw women spending hours upon hours browsing; in the mornings, they were queued up, waiting for the store to open. He realized he was on to something.

By the end of that year he had opened three more stores; by 2008 there were 14 stores; today there are 286, and this year the company expects to open a total of 50, which will bring the total to 336, says LaFleur, with flagship stores set to open soon in New York City and Las Vegas. Its first international location, in Canada, is also on the way. 

Charming Charlie offers a "wonderful price point for every girl," says LaFleur, with most merchandise ranging from $8-$40, and drawing women of all ages, young to old. "We allow her to stretch the apparel budget … to get [the accessories that will allow her to] get those new [trendy] looks inexpensively," she says.

Standing out from the crowd
Charming Charlie has truly charmed its customers — and the fashion media ? with a potent mix of value pricing, smart merchandising and a focus on the customer experience.

One of the retailer's signature characteristics is "shopping by color," a visual merchandising plan that the retailer developed after many requests from shoppers for specific products in other colors. (When a woman finds something she really likes, she usually wants to find that same thing in multiple colors, notes LaFleur.) Color has a huge influence in product development, with designers paying close attention to trending colors. For April, the color of the month is "radiant orchid," which is also Pantone's pick for 2014 color of the year.

How does the retailer keep customers coming in droves? Spreading the message of its low-cost, colorful and trendy offerings comes primarily through strong word-of-mouth from its loyal customers (in person and via social media), and from the media, which has embraced the retailer, turning to Charming Charlie for trend information and features on everything from what's hot for prom and New Year's to what's trending in clutches and rings.

"Our PR [team] is busy packing boxes daily to get things out to editors," says LaFleur. The company has partnerships with Lucky and Redbook, and readers of the magazines sometimes receive perks: for example, a customer who says she saw Charming Charlie products in the pages of Redbook will receive 20 percent off of her purchase. Additionally, the retailer's loyalty program, Charmclub, allows customers to earn 10 points per qualifying dollar spent.

Often, women come to shop together, having traveled some distance to spend a good chunk of their day exploring the store ? Charming Charlie has become a true "destination" retailer, says LaFleur. Recently, the company added a seating area with iPads for customers — including boyfriends and husbands, who might want to browse for the perfect gift while their counterparts are shopping. "There are many ways to interact with Charming Charlie," she says.

Taking it online
Now, that includes an e-commerce site. In translating its brand to the online world, Charming Charlie sought to replicate some of the strategies that had made the brick-and-mortar stores so successful, such as shopping by color. It also wanted to maintain the sense of "experience."

To engage with its customers, Charming Charlie has focused closely on their interests, particularly the Millennials, who comprise the "online sweet spot," at 47 percent of today's online audience, and are also the most engaged visitors. (By contrast, Boomers lead the in-store demographic  at 37 percent, followed by Millennials (32 percent) Gen Xers (28 percent) and Traditionalists (3 percent)). What's the Millennial shopper doing? Well, for example, she's reading the Style Me Crush blog post by Rachel Devon, checking out trends on refinery29, gossip on TMZ, watching Scandal and The Walking Dead, and listening to Vampire Weekend, Beyonce and Katy Perry.

Beyond the attraction of its affordable price point, LaFleur believes that the retailer appeals to the Millennial's identification as an individualist. "We don't pin her to a particular look."

The company has received one million visits to its website monthly since its October launch (50 percent of site traffic is mobile; 40 percent smartphone, 10 percent tablet) — and the business continues to sell out of everything. "Excess inventory is not a problem," quips LaFleur. She attributes the early success of its online site to pent-up demand for the product. "We have a wonderful halo effect every time we open a store; within a 30 mile radius, people are talking about it, bringing in friends and family." By the time it opened its e-commerce site, it had a large word-of-mouth following and many people eagerly awaiting an online store.

Making it easy and fun
Charming Charlie has learned quite a bit since it launched its site. For example, conversion is 50 percent higher for visitors who use the online color navigation. The site is organized so that users can browse by color, and by prints and patterns. Featured colors are rotated in and out of prominent real estate depending on what's trending for the season, but you can search for any color, anytime.

The retailer has also found that conversion is five times higher — yes, you read that right ? for visitors who view its product videos, created in partnership with Lucky magazine. "So, if you're wondering if videos matter, videos matter," says LaFleur. Providing shoppers with styling advice and trends, one recent video explained the do's and don'ts of necklace layering (be sure to have an even amount of distance between each necklace; the more delicate necklaces should lie on the inside, with the outside necklace making the biggest ‘statement.')

It's also learned that sometimes less is more. And even though its Millennial shopper is incredibly tech savvy, Charming Charlie is careful not to alienate its many other shoppers by complicating its web presence. is easy to shop, says LaFleur, with pages laid in out in ways that feel familiar, and presentation kept relatively simple. "A lot of getting what you want in front of your customer comes from learning how to edit yourself," she says. "We're constantly thinking about the tech [our shopper] has, and what she's doing and when."

In stores and online, Charming Charlie enjoys celebrating just about everything with its customers, and features colors and products to match: from Valentine's Day, to Easter, to St. Patrick's Day — everything can be accessorized. Currently, there's a heavy emphasis on proms and weddings, but the company is also serving style shifts coming from cultural events as varied as the Coachella Festival and the stylings of Downton Abbey.

Charming Charlie also has "huge social media appeal," says LaFleur. It's a big hit on Instagram, where the company features "wrist parties" (photos of stacked bracelets); on Twitter, where the company offered a gift card to the person who could guess the playing card selected from a deck (the response was so huge that Charming Charlie even received an excited call from Twitter); and on Pinterest, where the company has an opportunity to feature jewelry but also "elevate color and product," she says.

"Social media is working. … If you're wondering if you should invest, you should. [These sites] are inspiring your audiences. It's a good investment. It will be how people will be shopping in the next 10 years," she says. Charming Charlie is a privately held company, and LaFleur won't give out statistics on online sales figures, but, she concludes, "we anticipate it will be huge."
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's Note: The annual Apparel Tech Conference West is a technology and business strategy event for the West Coast apparel and retail industry, providing an ideal environment for attendees to share insights with their peers, hear from leading brands and retailers and preview technology solutions and services from a select group of leading industry suppliers. The Conference provides convenient access to real-world solutions and ideas designed to help attendees make strategic technology and business decisions. The East Coast event, the Apparel Business & Technology Leadership Conference (ABTLC), will be held Oct. 30 in New York City.