Christopher & Banks charts turnaround after losing its way

  • Article by: KAVITA KUMAR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2014 - 9:04 AM

Christopher & Banks is rebounding by finding a middle ground in style: Updated, but not too trendy.


Christopher & Banks CEO LuAnn Via, right, discussed customer preferences with Vice President Monica Dahl at their Mall of America location.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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As she zipped around the Christopher & Banks store at the Mall of America, LuAnn Via candidly pointed out the many ways the retailer had lost its way before she arrived.

It added too many styles, but then didn’t have enough depth in sizes.

Its clothes became too modern and devoid of color — then it went the other extreme and went color-crazy.

“We went what I call ditch to ditch,” said Via, who has been leading an impressive turnaround at the Plymouth-based retailer since she became its CEO at the end of 2012. “Then everything was purple, pink, aqua. The store looked like an Easter egg.”

Now under Via’s leadership, the company that sells moderately priced clothes to middle-aged women has been finding more of a middle ground that respects its customers’ love of pink intermixed with black and white. The goal is to give customers an updated look without scaring them off by being too trendy.

“Our customer is not fashion-forward,” Via said. “She’s not a fashion leader. But she is a fashion follower and she likes to be relevant. She wants to know someone else is wearing it.”

Via brought prices back down after they were raised 25 percent in 2011. She revived core categories the company mostly walked away from such as pants and denim.

And she added new items such as wrinkle-free shirts.

It seems to be working. Christopher & Banks, which floundered in the years coming out of the Great Recession, has begun to finally show some momentum. The retailer reported its first profitable year in the last fiscal year following three years of losses.

Its stock has begun to recover, too. While it traded as high as $29.48 in 2006, it plummeted to a low of $1.03 in 2012. On Friday, shares closed at $9.53.

“They’ve done a good job of re-establishing dependability for the consumer,” said Neely Tamminga, an analyst with Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis.

Some of the groundwork for the turnaround was laid out before Via arrived. In 2012, the firm closed about 100 underperforming stores that were often in not very desirable locations.

Now a major focus of the business is combining its plus-size stores, which were launched under the CJ Banks brand in 2000, with its missy and petite stores under the Christopher & Banks name.

After showing some initial positive results, the retailer has been accelerating its plans to convert more stores and open new locations in the format referred to internally as MPW stores (missy, petite, women). It plans to have 190 of its 545 stores in this format by the end of the year. By 2018, Via hopes to have mostly phased out stand-alone CJ Banks stores.

The inspiration behind the push stems from the fact that the average American woman is a size 14 and so sits right on the cusp of being a plus size, Via said.

“And a lot of women wear a different size on the top of the bottom,” she said, noting that they may be a 12 on the top, but a 14 or 16 on the bottom.

And Christopher & Banks found that about 20 to 25 percent of its customers cross shop between the two stores, which were sometimes located on opposite sides of the same mall or in different centers altogether.

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