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How charming Charlie built an empire by 38

Charlie Chanaratsopon with SSI president Anton Huang

What will you be doing when you’re 38? Sipping piña coladas? Chilling in your own private villa on the weekends? Charlie Chanaratsopon, founder and CEO of global fashion retail brand Charming Charlie, could be doing that — but instead, he’s busy with colors. That’s right, colors. His company, Charming Charlie, is known for that, and falling short of one hue on the ROYGBIV spectrum is a mortal sin.

Recently, Charlie, his wife Madelyn, and daughter Taylor were welcomed by Stores Specialists Inc. president Anton Huang to Manila to check out the first Charming Charlie at Bonifacio High Street. In an interview with the 38-year-old CEO, he explains the four pillars of why Charming Charlie exists: number one is color. “Baskin Robbins, there’s 31 flavors all the time. We would say we are the most colorful jewelry and accessories store in the world. We have 26 colors every single day of the year. So we know that every time you come to the store, and you want to shop in the fall and you want purple, we’re gonna have it for you,” he says.

“Number two is variety. Our average store — it’s a little bit smaller here — but our average store is about 30,000 units of products. It’s the most variety of specialty retail. If you can’t find that accessory in Charming Charlie, you shouldn’t be able to find it anywhere, or shame on us. Number three would be, what we call in our vernacular, unrivaled value. We’re not the cheapest, but we should be the best value. For the store experience, for what you get and for the product quality, we should be the best. Number four is fun. I really believe that there are things you can’t ship in a box. Fun is hearing music in the store, you’re dancing, you’re smiling. We’re not serious. I respect brands like Louis Vuitton and Prada, I think they’re all great, but they’re very serious. We’re a very happy and fun brand. And we try to live that in our home office, in our stores, in our store décor, in our store employees. That’s our DNA.”

Charlie grew up in a jewelry manufacturing family (his parents are from Thailand and immigrated in 1974). He wasn’t into fashion, but this explains his knack for business. In school, he would rent video games to his classmates. He was that kid. “My daughter’s 11, and I tell her this all the time. I’m very happy to do what I do. It’s not work to me; it’s my passion. It’s my joy. I can do it all the time. When I’m at the mall, it’s fun for me to see the Philippine stores and the different things they sell — Why do they sell it? Why do the local customers enjoy it? I’ve enjoyed business — from buying and selling or renting video games, to snacks in my lunch kit when I was in first grade — my whole life. I have a lot of passion for it. It’s fun to me. So if I was going to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer, I probably won’t be very good at it. Business has been in our family DNA since I was a child and I love it,” he said.

In 2004, the same time his daughter was born, Charlie put up the first Charming Charlie retail store one floor below the family business. He enrolled in graduate school while running the startup and a real estate development business. “When I was a younger guy, when the company started, the first few stores were trying to create a lot of value in owning real estate and owning stores. But I recognized that the stores became popular very quickly with the consumer, and the customer enjoyed being in the stores. Part of my thesis or idea was, once these things start going quickly, I wanted to grow something very large. And that, at that time, you call being naïve, or being ambitious. It’s always the same thing in my case, because I was 27 at that time. And at 27, 28 was when we started growing quickly. And I call it return on luck, also, because you need timing also to work in your favor,” he shared.

“At that time, between 2008 and 2009, the global financial crisis happened. It gave us an opportunity to take real estate really quickly at an opportunistic pricing. So it gave us, a smaller company, an opportunity to grow very quickly. And we could have, or we could have not. And we decided: Okay, the brand isn’t 100 percent perfect to how we would want to run it, but directionally it was working very well, so we just stepped on the gas and grew very fast. That’s when we went from seven stores to 14, then to 16, to 90, to 180 to 350, and now we’re operating in eight countries around the world.”

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Since then, the fashion retail business has changed and Charming Charlie is not one to fall behind. “Retail has evolved a lot in the last 10 to 15 years, but just the qualities that I look to my parents and grandparents a lot for — the passion and the work ethic is very important. Another thing that’s really important is to really listen to your customer base, and involve your product and what you do with their needs. We’re in the fashion retail business, we’re selling product that people don’t need to buy every single day. So we make sure that it excites them and makes them happy,” he said.

A majority of these customers are millennials. While Charming Charlie is not targeting millennials specifically — as Charlie says, accessories are sizeless and ageless — the brand’s digital strategy is to understand how millennials consume brands. He explained, “If you ask brands how they did marketing three years ago compared to how they do marketing today, it’s changing. Not changing a little bit — it’s changing profoundly. The entire marketing strategy, if it’s $100, $80 used to go to outdoor print, TV, radio, newspaper, traditional mechanisms. If you ask the same big global brands today — this is how fast it moved — now it’s 70 percent digital and 30 percent traditional. If they just started fresh, then it’s all digital. And that’s a very, very big change. You have to learn, if you’re spending that much money, and you’re going to change your mechanism, you have to understand what is it really that you’re going for.”

“We’re doing something on Facebook right now, where we know your location, and if you’re close to a Charming Charlie store, we’re doing these tests where, if you’re within one mile, we’re gonna serve you an ad, go to your closest store. We do control tests to see, can we drive her into the store or not? It’s these types of things that didn’t exist two years ago. Sometimes it’s a little scary how the system says where you are everywhere, but it’s also reaching out to your consumer. And millennials are very much into social media, into their phones,” he added.

All these changes are reflected in the Charming Charlie store: color, variety, value, fun, an understanding of the market — and they have 369 other stores around the world that offer the same. Charlie says, “People ask me, what’s the essence? This is where I have a lot of passion, this is where I talk about listening to customers again. What do customers say about why we are special? Why do they shop with us? And I can’t make this stuff up. The way women describe us most of the time is ‘candy store for grown-up women.’ What I mean by that is, she can come in, and it’s like a candy store — it’s so colorful, there’s so much product everywhere, and it’s a guilt-less pleasure. For $30 you can leave, and she feels better about herself. That’s our average out-the-door ticket. There are a thousand responses from surveys, what are the top three things that come up a lot? The emotional feel is happy, colorful, fun. And you can see that’s what we’re trying to provide.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Philippines, Charming Charlie, located at the second floor of Central Square at Bonifacio High Street and soon in Glorietta, is exclusively distributed by Stores Specialists Inc.

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