New York City
Claire Chambers characterizes designer lingerie chain Journelle as the result of having married her love of fashion with a desire to control her career. Today Journelle (from the archaic French word journellement, which means “daily”) has three stores in New York City and one in Miami, an online retail operation and plans for a national roll out.
Chambers has an economics degree from Wellesley College and industry experience as a Katzenbach Partners consultant. She launched Journelle in late 2007 with $2 million in start-up capital; just one year after trading consulting for retailing, she made Inc. magazine’s “30 Under 30” list.
Tell us about your first job.
I started CT’s Dog Walking business in 1990 with a friend -- the “T” in CT. We were 10. We distributed flyers and got one client, Mrs. Crosby, who paid us 50 cents a walk. We walked her dog for years.
Was there anything in your early work experience that pointed to creating your own specialty retail enterprise?
I had two really pivotal retail job experiences as a teenager, both of which had a big impact on my future choices. The first job was a barista at a local coffeehouse, where the owners gave me more and more responsibility as I gained their trust, eventually making me into a de facto manager. I virtually lived at work that summer, and loved being so directly important to customers’ daily routines.
Later, on a summer home from college, I got a job at the one store that I really admired in Ashland, Ore. -- the owner had exquisite taste -- and found again that the more responsibility I got, the more I loved the work.
From the earliest age, “owning it” has always been the most motivating thing for me, followed closely by the opportunity to interact firsthand with customers and, hopefully, leave them ecstatically happy.
What was the inspiration for Journelle?
I was inspired to create Journelle as an antidote to the experiences I had as a lingerie connoisseur in New York City. I was so surprised to find that most lingerie experiences were frustrating, embarrassing and simply un-inspiring -- and when I spoke to my friends, I found they were having the same experience. I wanted to change it, and make lingerie shopping into an experience that made women feel like they’d just indulged themselves in the best, most intimate way -- rather than having survived.
How does social media figure into your promotions?
Social media is a great tool for everyone, but we’re careful to keep it less commercial than any of our other marketing tools. With social media, you’re interacting with customers in a very open, natural way -- and I don’t want to abuse that intimacy. It’s about a two-way dialogue.
Our best promotions and events involve getting our core client base into our stores and giving them the VIP treatment. There’s really no better way to continue to develop the relationship than to show our appreciation.
Store environments are important in creating memorable shopping experiences. Can you tell us the rationale behind your stores’ layout?
I was really focused on the concept of the store’s organization and browse-ability. To me, not being about to browse in a store is a killer -- and yet, with lingerie and its many SKUs, it’s really important to keep it organized.
While we have great service, and our team wants nothing more than to help every customer individually, I also think it’s important that customers feel free to help themselves, and that’s not possible if a store is not really, really well organized.
Beyond that, we also wanted to make sure the store experience felt sensual but elegant and sophisticated (the antithesis of other lingerie stores, for the most part) and that fitting rooms were almost an exaggeration of themselves -- over-the-top comfortable and pleasant for a woman having to undress.
Care to gaze into your crystal ball and tell us what changes you see for the retail industry in the near future?
I’m fascinated by the rapid changes in e-commerce brought about and enabled by tablet devices. In the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of great, app-driven shopping experiences that integrate quality editorial content in a way that really immerses the shopper in the brand experience and vision. I find this exciting because it opens up the possibility to really connect with your customers the way you do in a bricks-and-mortar store, and drive the same type of loyalty and passion.
What retailers or brands are leading the way?
The most obvious answer is Apple. I love that they’ve focused so much on the experience of their stores and lightened up on traditional retail touchpoints like registers and lines, all while not sacrificing customer service.
I’m also very impressed by J.Crew. This is a brand that I ordered from while growing up in Oregon. The fact that they’ve evolved so much, while staying true to their original vision, is inspiring to me both as a retailer and a consumer. They have also started to create beautiful, very residential-feeling stores. Their newly remodeled Flatiron store, just around the corner from ours on lower Fifth Avenue, is an perfect example.
Since you’re on the road for buying trips, can you share any tips?
There’s nothing like getting lost in tiny stores in Paris. It’s a secret pastime of mine while I’m at the lingerie shows in Paris each spring and fall.
How do you unwind?
As a native Oregonian, there’s nothing I love more than getting outside for hiking, biking, riding horses or skiing. For me, it’s a great way to get refreshed from a hectic week at the office. I also love cooking for family and friends when on holiday, though my kitchen here in NYC sees very little love.
What would you still like to accomplish personally or professionally?
I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished in the past four years, but there’s much more that I want to do in my life. My focus right now is on growing my business and fine-tuning the concept into something that can truly scale. 2012 will be even busier for me than this year.
Whether with Journelle, or by developing a new concept, I would at some point love to get back to the true art of retail experience design and to explore new ways to emotionally connect with customers.
Personally speaking, there are a million things still on my list: languages to learn, places far away I would like to travel to and hobbies I’d like to pick up. But until things calm down, I’ll settle with my 2012 New Year’s resolution of getting to the gym more regularly and seeing friends more often.
Do you have a favorite charity or cause?
Because of my schedule, I haven’t been as active in this area as I’d like. But one tiny thing I do is make loans on Kiva.org to entrepreneurs around the world. I have a soft spot for female retailers. It is inspiring to see these women start out with virtually nothing but a vision and a dream, and end up contributing so much to their communities as a result of their hard work.