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Readying Chico’s FAS for Fashion’s New Normal

BoF hears how Chico’s FAS’s company culture is informing the evolution of its business and its response to the new retail landscape.
Employees outside Chico's FAS campus in Florida.
Employees outside Chico's FAS campus in Florida. Chico's FAS.
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Founded in 1983, Chico’s FAS operates three brands — Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma. Selling women’s apparel, accessories and related products, the brands have over 1,300 boutiques and outlets in the United States, as well as digital presence for each brand.

Last year, Chico’s FAS promoted Molly Langenstein to CEO and president of Chico’s FAS from president of Chico’s and White House Black Market. This appointment was designed to strengthen the organisation while also providing on-going stability and continuity to the business in support of the company’s future.

While its retail stores were temporarily closed during the start of the pandemic to safeguard its associates, customers and local communities across the US, Chico’s FAS reimagined its retail strategies, including using StyleConnect, its digital styling tool, to remain engaged with customers. The company also accelerated its buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and contactless curbside pickup strategies, as well as a shop-by-appointment service.

Now, BoF sits down with Langenstein to hear more about what the new year holds for Chico’s FAS, the brands and their associates moving into the next phase of fashion retail.

Molly Langenstein, Chico's FAS CEO and president.
Molly Langestein Chico's FAS CEO and President Molly Langenstein, Chico's FAS CEO and president. Chico's FAS.

What epitomises the culture of Chico’s FAS and its staff?

Chico’s started as a business for women — helping to bring them confidence and joy. That’s the foundation of the culture of the company, which has not changed since its origins as a seaside clothing boutique founded by husband and wife team, Helene and Marvin Gralnick, in the 1983.

Chico’s acquired White House Black Market in 2003, another female-founded company, and launched Soma in 2004. That boutique mentality from the original Chico’s store in Sanibel Island has transcended to the 1,300 stores we have today. Our customer is at the center of all our decisions and we aim to ensure we surprise and delight her. That stems from getting it right from a fashion and product perspective.

Our five core values shape the culture of our organisation and define our company’s character — they serve as the lens through which we make decisions for our customers, our associates and our company. They are: Customer Centricity; Passion for Fashion; Continuously Improve; Be Inspired and Inspire Others, by embracing new and diverse ways of thinking; and Be Accountable. We are accountable to metrics and recognised for results.

What qualities unite the employees at Chico’s FAS and its three brands?

It’s important to put leaders that are incredibly curious at the head of each brand — people that deeply respect and understand their customer. The three women running our brands all complement one another, with very different approaches and expertise. They lean into one another and leverage each other’s expertise.

That mentality drives the brands and spreads into our stores. We have Sister Sundays, where our associates move between brands so that they can understand each of our brands and share their knowledge, fostering a sense of empowerment within the group.

We had to get creative on the operational side and it was important to listen to the frontline.

Diversity and inclusion are also incredibly important to us. We welcome people that will foster community in our boutiques and across our company. We are building a company that is inclusive of everyone.

How has the pandemic remodeled the Chico’s FAS’ company culture?

There’s been a lot of positives that have come out of the pandemic. First, we believe Covid-19 has helped break down hierarchy and now everyone is on equal footing. Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls put everyone in the same size box. The raise your hand feature has made it easier for everyone to be included. I hope to keep that as we move forward. When you are in people’s bedrooms and kitchens via video call, with little ones running by or dogs nudging your arm, the formalities go away.

What has also come out of the pandemic from a culture standpoint is knowing that everyone is going through something challenging, from personal impact to logistical challenges. In the beginning, we had a two-day off-site about how to deal with the pandemic where we had very frank conversations about what each of us was struggling with and sharing our vulnerabilities.

Doing that set the tone to serve personal needs as well as business needs with flexibility. I believe in leading with head, heart and kindness, treating people with dignity and respect, and also just acknowledging “this is hard” is important. Now is the time for leaders to be authentic.

How have you kept employees engaged?

We thrive on inspiration and that usually means having immersive experiences, whether it’s travelling, visiting a museum or stores. Now that travel has paused, we are bringing cultural and visual experiences to our design and merchandising teams as well as our entire campus through “Inspiration Salon,” an exclusive speakers series that featured eight powerful icons in fashion.

Another important aspect is mental and physical wellbeing. We offer our associates and their families several options to manage any stress or anxiety that may have been brought on by the pandemic, including continued access to Employee Assistant Programme counselling services, weekly online yoga classes and safe access to our an on-site fitness center, which we have kept operational with rigorous cleaning rotas. We also have an on-site healthcare clinic to provide associates safe access to in-person medical services and mammography screenings.

How are you training staff to reflect your new digital-first priority?

It starts with talent. We encourage our teams to think bigger, be curious and execute nimbly. We attracted talented leaders with proven track records in digital to pivot us to a digital-first organisation. These leaders have been instrumental in helping educate our teams during our digital journey. We also offer courses to our associates to increase their digital IQ so that we can keep the organisation upskilled and be able to meet those demands.

How did you address operational challenges during lockdown conditions?

Doing the right thing is the foundation of our decisions. In the distribution center — our only store that remained open — we needed to make sure those associates knew they were valued. We immediately made permanent wage increases in appreciation of how much they were doing to support our company and our customers during that time period.

Because the pandemic is ever-evolving, we are thinking in short bursts, focusing on three months at a time.

We enacted protocols in terms of social distancing, including plexiglass, adding temperature checks, masking — everything we could to safeguard our associates while we meeting the ever-evolving needs of our customers. In the US, each state has different guidelines on how to operate, so a savviness and flexibility has been at the highest level.

We also got creative on the operational side. It was important to listen to the frontline to inform what needs to happen — they are the ones that can best tell you what works. We implemented contactless curbside pickup and virtual appointments to conveniently and safely serve our customers. The majority of our boutiques are on shopping strips, which has made curbside ideal.

On becoming CEO and president of Chico’s FAS this year, what were your priorities?

When I joined a year and a half ago as president of apparel for Chico’s and White House Black Market, we committed to creating a customer- and product-obsessed company. We achieved that and will continue on our path of driving elevation, style and quality for our brands.

We came out of Q4 in 2019 with the first positive comparables in all three brands for the first time in six years. When I stepped into the role of CEO and president of Chico’s FAS, my focus is to continue this success as we move forward.

How has 2020 evolved your strategies and plans for 2021?

Of course, we didn’t know that 2020 was going to be the year it was, and the pandemic has made some new initiatives more urgent, like implementing immediate actions to keep our customers safe and making sure we maintained financial stability.

Because the pandemic is ever-evolving, we are thinking in short bursts, focusing on three months at a time. This allows us to be flexible and to respond swiftly to any situation that may arise.

We will continue to build on our position as digital-first company, keeping focused on our product, our customers and our initiatives, and improving our sourcing and logistics as a company. Those are the four focuses that we started last year, and we will continue on moving into 2021.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Chico’s FAS as part of a BoF Careers partnership.

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