CEO LuAnn Via talks Christopher & Banks' transformation

          LuAnn Via

In the fall of 2014, Christopher & Banks announced the opening of 37 new stores reflecting the women's apparel brand's new strategy: one location, all sizes. The test began in the company's flagship store in the Mall of America in 2011, where for the first time, the Christopher & Banks and CJ Banks brands came together under one roof. The concept was then tested in 20 locations across the country before leading to a national roll out.

Today the Christopher & Banks woman, usually between the ages of 45 to 65, can shop missy, petite and women's sizes all in one store—accommodating the 30 percent of women who cross shop the different sizes.

While the Christopher & Banks shopper typically falls within a certain demorgaphic, CEO and President LuAnn Via is quick to say she would not slap a baby boomer label onto this group of women, who have a much younger mindset than often perceived.

"We're not the same as our mothers or our grandmothers anymore," she said. And it's just that mentality that has transformed the brand over the last five years into a household name for women of all sizes who want to stay fashionable. Via spearheaded the novel move to combine the company's brands under one roof, and has since seen the fruits of her labor.

FierceRetail: Who is the Christopher & Banks woman?

Luann Via: She's a very loyal shopper. Generally, she works outside the home and about two-thirds are married. Above the U.S. average, her median annual household income is around $75,000. And she's a customer that I believe is underserved, not only in missy, which is sizes 4 to 14, but also in petite and then also in plus. I also think that at her age [45 to 65] she has a little bit more of a nuance to her shape. It's not just the size, but women are often different on top and on the bottom. So it's about 25 percent of our customers who shop both size ranges. And that's really the basis, at least the primary basis, for creating one box.

The first 'dual store' actually opened back in 2009 in Moosic, Pennsylvania, and it was the first time we ever had a store that actually had all sizes under one roof. And one side was called Christopher & Banks and the other side was called CJ Banks.

Since then, we've been able to say, okay, we're going to combine into the larger of our two footprints, or we need a bigger store where we can house both brands in all three size ranges. So they didn't really pursue the concept until 2010. And those stores are what we call MPWs because we have all size ranges under one roof.

Customers today don't want special clothes for their sizes—they want to buy the exact same thing as their friends are wearing, only in a different size. When I came on board in 2012, we had 60 stores and they were actually pulling it back because they had trouble executing it, so I think we got down to 40-something stores. I told them that the concept was right, it just wasn't executed well. We needed to preplan to make sure the assortments were the same in missy and plus. So I said we're going to try it again.

FierceRetail: Are a lot of your shoppers purchasing both online and off-line? Is that changing?

Via: We're really seeing growth in our multi-channel customer whether she shops online, in store, or by mobile. So we actually have had our mobile in place since the third quarter of last year and it's over 3 percent of our online business now. So our customer, at 58 years old, actually prefers to either shop online or in store, but I would tell you that it's interesting because she really is now moving from one to the next. It's about 11 percent of our business now, that's grown from online. We do see that it can be a larger opportunity than even I envisioned.

No matter, I would say that at least 80 to 85 percent of sales are still in brick-and-mortar stores. A customer likes to shop online when she knows what her size is, specifically if she wears our pants, which we have very consistent sizing in now. But she still likes to come in for two reasons. First of all, I think she likes to feel the fabrics, and second, I think that a lot of times she also likes the interaction. The one thing I would say about Christopher & Banks that's different than any company that I've worked in is the fact that we have an unbelievable friendship and service model between our store associates and our customers.

FierceRetail: After piloting the dual store in the Mall of America, was there anything you learned that you had to correct? Any challenges you faced?

Via: One of the things that we learned is our customer loves a navigation sign. She wants to know where her size ranges are. We also learned about new fixtures that we bought. One of the things we tested in there [Mall of America] were straight racks that are really fabulous, and we learned that this is a way to increase our capacity and also improve our presentation.

And then the windows. I'm always one that says, you know, the windows are your best marketing tool. There are so many people that are in the malls, so that gives you really good presence. The test gave us some really clear findings that we could really enhance our windows to really enhance our product. All in all, that store has been a real win-win for us to really take those ideas, and maybe take them down a notch, because whenever you do a flagship you're investing a lot more because they're one-off fixtures. But there's a big opportunity for us to take that and expand it for the rest of the chain.

FierceRetail: Any new technology coming down the pipeline?

Via: In the next three years we are making some major investments to be more omnichannel and multi-channel, so we're investing in our systems in-store as well as our e-commerce systems to really create that omnichannel, multi-channel experience for her. What I really want to see is that we're totally integrated across all channels. So wherever she's shopping, whether it's in-store, whether it's online, whether it's mobile, she gets that same Christopher & Banks experience.

FierceRetail: In the competitive apparel industry, what makes Christopher & Banks stand out?

Via: Number one: it's the customer. This customer, who is 45 to 60 years old, is underserved in the marketplace, specifically in plus sizes. And I think there's more of an opportunity. I think a lot of CEOs want the millennials because that's the shiny new object out there. Well, the millennials aren't spending like our target customer. They're in debt. Some of them are still living at home. The customer that's the boomer in the next five years, she's going to control over 50 percent of the spend.

FierceRetail: What's next for Christopher & Banks?

Via: One of the things that we're really looking at is balancing our product. We used to be a really casual store, and so therefore our customers usually have to buy wear-to-work and career product elsewhere. We're now balancing our assortment so that we have both casual and career, and we're trend-right and relevant, but still classic and still flattering and age appropriate, but still trend-right.