One of the region’s largest retailers prepares for reentry. ‘It was much easier to close stores than it has been to reopen them,’ new CEO says.
The network of Chico’s FAS stores nationwide, some 1,300 locations under three brands, has been shuttered for nearly two months — but that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t been busy.
The Fort Myers-based women’s retailer, which did $2.03 billion in revenue in 2019 and is one of Southwest Florida’s largest private employers, is instead moving at a Christmas season-like pace. For starters, the publicly traded company posted double-digit sales growth in the six weeks since it was forced, by the economic shutdown, into becoming a digital-only business. The increase, company officials say, was driven mostly by active, lounge and sleep categories.
Internally, meanwhile, it moved forward April 29 on a leadership succession plan by announcing it is promoting Division President Molly Langenstein to president and CEO. Langenstein, who had been president of the company’s two largest brands, Chico’s and White House Black Market, since August, replaces Bonnie Brooks, who will become executive chairwoman. When Langenstein’s CEO appointment becomes effective June 24, she will be the third CEO at Chico’s in 14 months; Brooks, a Chico’s board member since 2016, had stepped into the CEO role in April 2019, first as interim chief, after Shelley Broader resigned.
“I love these brands,” Langenstein says, referring to Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma, in an interview after her CEO appointment was announced. “I love our culture.”
Langenstein’s experience in retail goes back to growing up in a small Ohio town, where she helped her mom run a clothing boutique. Seeing how empowering it was to help women feel comfortable in clothes, Langenstein ultimately spent 30 years with Macy’s, including overseeing the chain’s multibillion-dollar ready-to-wear group.
Although her challenge initially when she was recruited to Chico’s was to lead a turnaround in brick-and-mortar sales and improve customer service metrics, Langenstein, 55, acknowledges her CEO mission, under COVID-19, is different. Overseeing a retailer in the current environment, she says, “is a far greater challenge” than the post-9/11 world or the 2008-2009 recession, mostly because the economic impact is wider and deeper.
With that as a backdrop, Langenstein, Brooks and other leaders spent most of April finding a way forward. After input from security, fulfillment and operations, among other departments, the company announced a three-phase reopening plan April 27. The plan, scheduled to begin May 4, includes:
• Phase one involves fulfillment of national orders through physical locations using store inventories;
• Phase two features buy-online pick-up-in-store, including contactless curbside pickup; and
• Phase three launches a new shop-by-appointment service for all brands, in staying consistent with health and safety guidelines.
‘We really stepped inside the customer's shoes to see what she wants from us.’ Molly Langenstein, Chico’s FAS
The process to get to this point was a complicated maze. “We are learning it was much easier to close stores than it has been to reopen them,” Langenstein says. “There are a lot of things we have to weigh. We have to get a lot of information and a lot of data points. Will malls and shopping plazas be open? And will our customer be ready to come back inside a store?”
Brooks, in a statement announcing the reopen plan, says she thinks Chico’s will “have some significant advantages in the next several months as the majority of our stores are under 3,500 square feet and are located in easily accessible shopping plazas.”
Langenstein, in the interview, adds managers and other in-store personnel have invested time in what the store experience will look like. Langenstein and others went in-person to a new Chico’s store on Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers to test some things out, such as moving racks to the back to create more floor space. They reconfigured dressing rooms and decided to keep plastic on inventory longer, to limit exposure. They also came up with a plan to provide hand sanitizer and masks to customers and employees. “We really stepped inside the customers shoes,” Langenstein says, “to see what she wants from us.”