Francesca's has emerged from bankruptcy with new ideas about how to thrive in a tough apparel market further complicated by the pandemic. The chain joins Victoria's Secret and others in testing fresh store concepts, which may launch in time for the holidays, CEO Andrew Clarke said in an interview.
Some involve merchandising that doesn't fit into the retailer's typical boutique sizes of 1,400 to 1,600 square feet, and require a "slightly reconfigured footprint," Clarke said. The retailer also plans to open two stand-alone locations of its new "Franki" tween line in time for the holiday season, he said.
But unlike Victoria's Secret, Gap, Banana Republic and others, Francesca's is by and large sticking to the mall, Clarke said.
Francesca's differentiated itself with a store format much smaller than a typical mall store, and the company's habit of calling its locations "boutiques" is apt.
Despite the fact that a Francesca's boutique is likely to be found in a traditional mall alongside many corporate chains, many people believe that it's a local shop run by a businessowner named "Francesca," Clarke said. Post-bankruptcy, the company runs 466 locations across the U.S. and is "actively reopening where it makes sense," he said by phone.
"We think of ourselves as a national chain that really shows up as a localized boutique," Clarke said. "And as such, you know, this is why we've received so much support from our landlords over the last year or so, because they recognize that we occupy a bit of a uniquely sized footprint in their malls today. That having been said, the team has continued to innovate throughout the pandemic."
That has meant rethinking the store format and the assortment, including development of new brands under the Francesca's banner, according to Clarke.
The Franki line, which was quietly unveiled late last year just before bankruptcy proceedings began, is poised to benefit from the decline of Justice. Clarke's previous experience as chief merchant at Justice will likely serve Franki well. Before joining Francesca's early last year, just before most people realized the impact the pandemic would have, Clarke was working at Ascena, first at Justice and later at Loft.
But Francesca's is working to expand more than its target customer base, Clarke said.
"So right now we are testing a number of new ideas in the physical space, but clearly not all of that can fit in a boutique of 1,400 [or] 1,600 square foot," he said. "So, we are right now preparing to launch some new store concepts, looking at a slightly reconfigured footprint."
Via a new incubator program dubbed "franFINDS," the retailer is bringing in independent brands and providing mentorship and other tools to grow their businesses. Following the first competition in July, winning products include candles and jewelry, which will be featured in stores and online in time for the holidays, according to a company press release.
Francesca's is not immune to the rising freight costs and supply chain challenges bedeviling the industry right now. But Clarke's experience in fast fashion has meant more nimble planning and buying processes, and he said his team enjoys good relationships with European vendors that have been less impacted by manufacturing and shipping delays.
"We're a fashion business as you know, as I say to the teams, 'Fashion is best served when it's hot,' right?" he said. "I think we've got to balance planning and buying ahead with flexibility and reacting to what our customer wants, in real time. That is what has made our company much more successful in recent months than we have been in recent years."