Last week, we reported a rumor that Kate Spade was planning to launch a lower-priced line that, according to the Daily News, would be positioned to compete with C. Wonder, Chris Burch's big, bright (and controversial) concept chain. I mentioned something about how I hoped it wasn't too much like C. Wonder, which, as I admitted, I had never been to because I find the singing and dancing employees a tad overwhelming and scary. I just don't particularly like overstimulating environments and overly-enthusiastic, aggressive employees make me uncomfortable. Since I'd never been there, I didn't know if they actually were aggressive, but it just seemed like they would be and they were always standing right at the entrance (dancing and singing) so I knew I'd have to deal with them!
Well, the next day, Chris Burch emailed me saying he read the article (eek!) and invited me to meet him at the Soho store to experience C. Wonder firsthand. [Ed. note: We think this is pretty awesome of Chris Burch.] So I went. Read on for my more informed assessment of the store, some things I learned about the brand, and what Burch had to say about its inspiration, competitors, and what's next.
Like most anxiety-inducing things, going into C. Wonder was not as bad as I'd made it out to be in my head. Though, to be honest, I got the feeling the employees may have been pre-instructed not to sing or dance in my presence. Regardless, Burch was very nice and enthusiastic and came equipped with C. Wonder's very knowledgeable and charismatic VP of Merchandising, Jon Zeiders.
Granted it was not a weekend, but the store was bright and airy and had an overall positive, not too overwhelming vibe. The employees didn't seem aggressive and offered me lemonade and chocolate (again, not sure if Chris Burch being there had anything to do with that). The music was loud but not too loud, which ties into what is easily the coolest part of the store and maybe any store ever: In each roomy dressing room, there's a little console where you can change the music, adjust the volume (or turn it off), adjust the lighting (to be more flattering), and call on a sales associate. It's genius. They also offer mobile checkout so you don't have to wait in line to pay. We keep hearing retail is all about "creating a shopping experience" these days and C. Wonder is a good example of that.
Zeiders mentioned the phrase "afforable luxury" a few times, pulling out jewelry and small leather goods made with quality materials that would cost twice as much with a more recognizable, high-end logo. Meaning, yes, some of their products do look a tad familiar, but at least they're classic, decent quality and not overpriced?
I found many of the products, especially those not emblazoned with a huge "C" (or letters of your choice--they're big on personalization) cute and timeless in a neighborhood full of overly trendy things that can fall apart even before they go out of style. I also can't think of a better place to go when you need to buy someone a gift but have no idea what to get them. Chances are, it's there.
That's their other thing--they have everything from stationary to electronics to clothes. They even have customizable bikes and a floral Vespa scooter sitting right there in the store that had recently made the pages of Vogue. "It's Anna Wintour-approved," Zeiders said. As we walked through the store, Burch pointed out a few things he would buy, some of which he didn't even know they had.
"We’re trying to change the way people think about retail," he said. "We don’t want to be like everybody else." That's something C. Wonder has come under fire for since it launched. Most notably for resembling Tory Burch, which he launched with his now ex-wife Tory. That's why, he says, "of course they're going to compare us to that."
"I’m so excited about how well Tory does; it’s phenomenal; I’m the largest shareholder," he boasted. (Guess Tory hasn't had any luck getting him to sell)
He says he doesn't think about his competitors. "We worry about what we're doing," he explained. "I don’t even know what our competitors do." He says he's learned that customers want "basics with a twist" and that "if it’s too serious, it doesn’t sell. Our product has a lot of novelty in it."
So if it wasn't Tory, what did inspire the idea for C. Wonder? "The idea came when I was in a big box retailer and I was thinking about how good their food was and everything else, but there wasn’t a lot of high quality merchandise for that aspirational customer. You walk into a Costco and you get the great food and everything and I thought if [the customer] walked into a Costco and saw this fabulous merchandise in the middle of it, they’d go crazy. So that started the concept."
Some things they do differently aside from having awesome dressing rooms include giving away a free pair of earrings when you return something. "If you return something in a store, why should you be given trouble? That's why we said, 'let's just give a pair of earrings away to shock the customer.'" Burch also spoke enthusiastically about new technologies he'd heard about and wanted to use in the store.
He plans to open around 11 more locations this year (the 20-50 he reported when we last spoke was a little ambitious, it seems), including one in the Time Warner Center this fall, which he says will be "totally different" from the Spring Street store. For example, he says it will have new room concepts like a "disco mod room."
He doesn't seem like someone with a lot of limits or constraints when it comes to his businesses, of which he has several--both established and in the works. He has a short attention span and a lot of ideas. "Maybe in five years I may put a store under the water," he said without any detectable sarcasm.
It may be a little longer than five years, but if it seems like something people will want, he will probably do it.