Even big companies can shift quickly to new market opportunities. An example comes from $2.1 billion retailer Chico's FAS— with a team that broke a few rules along the way.
The sprawling Chico’s FAS campus in Fort Myers held a secret the past two years. Inside a war-room like design and strategy studio, tucked away and with no sign on the door, 15 people worked diligently on a new project: intimate apparel. “We called it the garage,” says Kimberly Grabel, general manager of the initiative .
Not that Chico’s, a women’s retailer founded in 1983 on Sanibel Island, doesn’t already sell underwear. Its Soma unit, through some 250 stores and online, sells a diverse collection of women’s lingerie, bras, swimwear and sleepwear.
‘We tried to not follow the old playbook of how to grow a business. We broke a lot of rules along the way.’ Kimberly Grabel, TellTale
But it was while Grabel oversaw research for Soma, for new products, that the company, she says, stumbled on an opportunity. “We came across a group of women who were so dissatisfied and frustrated with the choices for intimate apparel,” says Grabel, a 25-year retail veteran, including more than a decade at Saks Fifth Avenue. “They don’t want to be told they have to be sexy for someone else. They want to be sensual for themselves.”
Grabel says the research — both quantitative and qualitative — included input from thousands of women. The resulting project, with the secret now out, is TellTale. It’s an online-only intimates brand focused on women 25 to 40 old and sold at mytelltale.com. The project debuted April 24 — National Lingerie Day.
This is the demographic Grabel and team believes have been cast aside in a copycat industry, where Victoria’s Secret — sex sells — has been the leader for years, before some recent stumbles. It’s also a category of customers new to Chico’s, which leans toward baby boomers. “We see the need not being met,” Grabel says, “and we think we can fill it well.”
TellTale is significant for Chico’s, a salvo during a treacherous time in legacy retail, where margins are squeezed and customers are flooding to the ease of e-commerce. Chico’s same-store sales dropped 4.9% in the last fiscal year, and total revenue fell 8.7%, from $2.3 billion to $2.1 billion. In January the company announced it plans to close at least 250 stores in three years, what officials, in a release, call a “strategic decision to rebalance the mix between its physical store presence with its digital network.”
(The company is also undergoing a leadership shift, with the departure of President and CEO Shelley Broader, who left the company April 24. Chico’s board member Bonnie Brooks was named interim CEO.)
Chico’s strategy with TellTale is also a lesson for any company that seeks to shift in response to customer needs, particularly one with long-established business practices. From the top, Grabel was allowed to run TellTale like a startup. That included finding its own website provider and distribution center. It also forced the team to be nimble, down to issuing purchase orders manually, with Excel. Chico’s officials declined to disclose the budget for TellTale.
“We tried to not follow the old playbook of how to grow a business,” Grabel says. “We broke a lot of rules along the way.”
The result is intimates told through the story of an active woman, says Grabel, not just a mom or just a professional, and likewise, doesn’t only shop at Banana Republic or J. Crew.
The TellTale line includes six bra silhouettes replicated across collections. The silhouettes are a driving force behind TellTale, says Grabel, because it addresses something the research team heard often: fit is hard enough, without retailers changing or altering the fit after a customer finds the perfect bra. So the TellTale silhouettes, under the collections, fashions and colors, have the same block forms. "This consistency will allow a customer, upon finding the silhouette she loves, to focus on fashion and personal expression,” the company says in a statement.
The collections, meanwhile, from cotton to comfy to see-through mesh, go back to the story and what Grabel calls the different dispositions of a woman. Collection names include The Ghoster, The Romantic, The Innovator, The Influencer and The Daredevil. The company, enticing new customers, offers free shipping and returns.
While Grabel says the marketplace demand is acute and untapped, she recognizes competitors are taking the nimble startup approach, including Adore Me and Journelle. "There are lot of people doing this,” says Grabel,
“but no one has tapped into the ideas and stories like we have done.”