I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Charlie Chanaratsopon, Founder of Charming Charlie. Opened in 2004, Charming Charlie is a women’s fashion and accessories brand with over 270 stores across the United States. In 2015, he was named by Forbes as one of “America’s 40 Most Successful Young Entrepreneurs.” Charlie is a first generation Thai-American who graduated with an MBA from Columbia Business School. He generously spoke with me about the emergence of the Charming Charlie brand as well as the ever changing landscape of the retail and consumer market. Charming Charlie is most notable for its unique strategy in organizing merchandise by color. My experience speaking with him was a pleasure and I am very pleased to share my interview.
Bianca: What prompted your realization that accessories would be your business? Did you have a sense of assuredness in your vision to supply the market in the way that Charming Charlie does now? Was this because of a lack that you saw in the industry for affordable fashion accessories?
Charlie: At the core, I’m an entrepreneur, and love buying and selling “things” since I was a kid. I’m from Houston, Texas, and grew up in an entrepreneurial family. As for Charming Charlie, I knew that I didn’t want to focus the brand on apparel, as it is a highly competitive and generally difficult category to compete. I was thinking about what product mix to curate for the brand, and after studying other retail concepts, I realized that there was an opportunity in accessories. Charming Charlie could be the one stop for women’s accessories.
Bianca: I love the namesake aspect of Charming Charlie – a reference to you! How did it come about? Likely because of your charming personality?
Charlie: This is a good story! I never imagined we were going to have stores all over the country, and just wanted to quickly come up with a name and get started. So, I hired a marketing firm and explained that we were going to be selling this type of product and that I needed a name. I recall the first few names that were suggested, and I only remember the awful sounding ones like “Accessory Buffet, ” “Accessories City,” or “Funky Monkey.” I asked if we could explore other names and one of the marketers sitting in our meeting looks at me and says, “What about Charming Charlie?” That was really catchy and easy to remember, and that was it!
Bianca: The color coordination concept is fabulous; some artists would say that a color becomes a color when it’s next to other colors (the way in which colors affect other colors). Did you consider from the company’s inception that color organization would be an essential part of your brand’s identity? I remember being struck by how great that was when I shopped in the store.
Charlie: When we had three or four stores, I asked myself, “How do we maintain differentiation/innovation, and give the customer what they want?” I was standing in a store on a Saturday and speaking to customers. One of our customers told me, “You should present the product by color, it’s how I shop.” We first tried the color coordination in one store. We received great feedback. We then took the three front tables and color coordinated them; the customers loved it. Since then, color is such an important pillar of the brand, and all stores changed to be merchandised by color.
Bianca: Trends, fashion, and timeless style are all integrated into the brand so well, does the design team gain inspiration from a combination of current trends in the market and occasion-oriented wear (i.e. cocktail party, everyday wear, etc.)? There really is something for everyone and it’s a good mix of timeless and trendy!
Charlie: Merchants/buyers need to constantly stay on top of trends and fashion, but most importantly know the brand’s core customer.
Merchants stay on top of trends by following influencers/brands on social media, going through magazines, working with our product partners, attending fashion shows, gaining inspiration from luxury brands, and shopping at other retailers. These activities help merchants quickly bring relevant on trend beautiful product to customers.
Bianca: What points in the history of Charming Charlie do you consider most notable? It has scaled remarkably; I read on the company website that there are ~260 stores?
Charlie: There’s all sorts of milestones, but something that was very special for us was when we first expanded outside of Texas, opening in other states in the US and seeing women smile and their positive reaction as they entered the store; whether it was a woman in Georgia or a woman in New Jersey, seeing that Charming Charlie was not just a local phenomenon. It was really rewarding and exciting to see the brand resonating across the country.