By  on August 17, 2010

Seeking to entice twentysomethings as well as teens, Jenny Ming’s overhaul of retailer Charlotte Russe has generated a store prototype that is intended to simplify the shopping experience.

Since becoming president and chief executive officer of Charlotte Russe Holding Inc. in October, Ming retooled the management of the 515-store chain, opened creative offices in San Francisco, updated the logo and assembled an in-house design team. The fresh look for the stores made its debut this month in the revamped Southern California shopping center Santa Monica Place.

“We are repositioning [and] pretty much redoing Charlotte Russe to be more modern and up-to-date,” Ming said as she gave a tour of the new Charlotte Russe concept. “The brand hasn’t been touched for a long time. Our goal is being a trend editor. So, when you are in here, it is easy to find what you want.”

Ming, who helped make Gap Inc.’s Old Navy division a national retail force during her seven years as president, has sharpened Charlotte Russe’s merchandising in an attempt to improve productivity and sales, even though at around 5,000 square feet the new concept is 2,000 square feet smaller than the earlier retail layout. With annual sales per square foot in the $220 range for 2007 and 2008, Charlotte Russe’s performance lagged behind its competitors and the overall sales per square foot of more than $1,000 that Santa Monica Place owner Macerich anticipates for retailers.

Productivity gains will hinge on consumer acceptance of Charlotte Russe’s new retail format segmenting clothing into trends that are swapped out every four to six weeks. Those trends — plaid-heavy downtown prep, lace-laden vintage treasure and a feminine twist on military garb dubbed fleur fatigue are among those spotlighted in the store currently — are delineated by glass dividers to create intimate, boutique-like areas Ming described as “shops.”

Encouraging purchases of multiple items, the shops present pieces across apparel categories such as outerwear, tops and bottoms sticking to a similar color palette that can be worn together for a trendy look. Mannequins specifically crafted to sport jewelry and shoes also demonstrate layered, head-to-toe outfits for the various trends throughout the store. To top off outfits, jewelry and shoes, which Ming stressed are significant sales drivers, are at the rear of the store, as is the cash wrap.

“I really love the boutique feeling,” she said. “When you come in here, you really feel like you can know what we stand for, what a trend looks like. Before, you really felt that you had to go and look for everything yourself. Now, it is much easier.”

The goal of the changes is to attract a larger audience of shoppers aged 15 to 29 years old, compared with the previous core demographic of 15- to 18-year-old girls. Charlotte Russe’s teen-oriented fits often haven’t been appropriate for young adults, but have been adjusted to appeal to a wider spectrum of people in an age-spanning psychographic of fashion coveting shoppers that can’t always afford designer wares.

“We had her [young adult customers] coming in, but she was not always finding what fits her,” Ming said. “Today, so many teens shop older and many older [customers] shop younger. Not just focusing on teens, but teens and young adult women broadens the brand.”

Khristene Son, a former colleague of Ming’s at Old Navy who heads Charlotte Russe’s new internal design team as senior vice president of design and trend, said Charlotte Russe now offers denim in eight silhouettes compared with a single tight, low-cut silhouette in previous years. “We are really looking at fit and being able to give fit for multiple body shapes,” she said.

With the merchandise upgrades, Ming insists Charlotte Russe will rise above the fast-fashion retail crowd. “Sometimes when it is fast fashion, it seems to be disposable fashion, and I certainly don’t think our clothes are disposable,” she said. “We want it to be great value. You look great and it doesn’t cost you a lot.”

The most expensive items at Charlotte Russe are roughly $40, but Ming believes the store’s prices can inch upward slightly once customers begin to realize the quality differences. “Some of our bestsellers are actually the highest price point,” she said, singling out a rosette shrug for $40. “That tells us a lot about what the customer is willing to pay.”

Charlotte Russe, which went private after Boston-based Advent International Corp. acquired it in October, plans to renovate 30 doors this year, and open locations in Chicago and Cambridge, Mass., in November. Before that, a collection in collaboration with “Gossip Girl” stylist Eric Daman will hit stores in October.

Although Ming wouldn’t elaborate on retail growth beyond this year, her objective is to place stores averaging 5,500 square feet in top-tier malls. In the past, she said, “We weren’t even in some cases showing up to the party, and I think you have to be where the consumer shops today….We belong in the better centers now.”

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