Wieffering: Retailer tries to reconnect with its best customer

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2011 - 9:33 PM

Larry Barenbaum

Photo: Thomas Strand, Star Tribune

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Mary, Larry wants you back.

Larry, as in Barenbaum, is the CEO of the Plymouth-based women's apparel retailer Christopher & Banks. Mary is his target customer: a 50-ish, small town-living, minivan-driving mother who, after helping make C&B one of the hottest stocks in the land, found her way on to Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal.

Then Mary, who prefers sensibly priced, modestly fashionable clothing, left the building. Or, it might be more accurate to say, Christopher & Banks chased her away. And now they are sorry.

"I love Mary," Barenbaum said. "We want to give back to her what we've taken away over the years."

This is proving more difficult than Barenbaum expected. Christopher & Banks' shares have lost nearly 60 percent of their value this year. A much-anticipated revamp of its product line, which included updated styling and higher prices, flopped, resulting in a $13 million loss for the quarter that ended in August.

On Monday, Christopher & Banks identified 69 stores nationwide that it will close by the end of January. The closings are expected to result in layoffs of 800 to 1,000 employees.

"We know that we're not going to cut our way to success," Barenbaum said. "But all of the stores we've identified have been underperforming for a long time. It was time to admit that they were not going to come back."

Problem: Before taking the CEO job last October, Barenbaum was the chairman of Christopher & Banks' board. In that role, he signed off on a building boom that saw the chain open 400 new stores in five years.

"I'll admit that we were all caught up in the excitement of growth," Barenbaum said.

Barenbaum is the fifth CEO in about six years. His predecessor, Lorna Nagler, was fired after three years on the job.

Barenbaum, who had personally recruited Nagler, credits her for launching the company's e-commerce store, and for developing the "dual format" store that combines apparel from both its CJ Banks plus-size stores and its traditional Christopher & Banks stores.

But Nagler also presided over a steep decline in the company's stock price, a 20 percent plunge in sales and Christopher & Banks' first annual losses -- almost $35 million worth -- in more than a decade.

The economy was only partly to blame, Barenbaum said. The retailer's fashion sensibility had become "stale," and product quality slipped. During Nagler's tenure, nearly 2 million Christopher & Banks customers stopped making purchases in the store.

To get them back, Barenbaum said, "We had to bring the special back to specialty retail."

Barenbaum brought back a designer who'd left the company under Nagler, and she undertook a wholesale reworking of the company's apparel lines.

Early consumer response was encouraging, but it soon became apparent that customers were balking at having to pay higher prices for design frills than they didn't especially need or want.

To show me what that means, Monica Dahl, who directs the company's overall strategy and e-commerce operations, pulled a shimmering, blue-green jacket from a headless mannequin in one of the company's conference rooms. The fabric, silky to the touch, and the ruffles and belt make it too dressy for casual wear and, at $79, too pricey for customers who typically spend less than $50 for an item.

"Our customers will pay higher prices for designs that are versatile and classic," Dahl said. "Our mistake was offering too many products at the higher price points."

Barenbaum faults himself. "We were so excited about offering her something new that we weren't as disciplined as we should have been on pricing."

To make sure that doesn't happen again, Barenbaum has hired new operations heads for both the Christopher & Banks and CJ Banks units, a layer of management that had been stripped out in recent years.

Howard Tubin, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets who has followed the company for about a decade, notes that all specialty retailers are suffering. Department stores are courting 40- to 60-year-old women more aggressively, and some have shifted their spending to Target and Kohl's.

"I think Larry is doing a lot of good," Tubin said. "But it's unclear how long it's going to take" to turn the corner financially.

Barenbaum, who joined the Christopher & Banks board in the mid-1990s, wishes that the economy were stronger and that he had more money to spend on advertising. Still, a concerted direct-mail campaign between August and October resulted in purchases from 182,000 formerly lapsed customers.

Maybe Mary likes what she sees so far.

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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