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Building on the success of her Loft division, Krill is making over Ann Taylor with smaller stores and cheaper clothes. She talks with Carol Hymowitz about shopping during the downturn.
When consumers hear the word “Loft,” what do you want them to think of?
Fun, engaging, girlfriends, happiness. We did a lot of research with the Ann (ANN) consumer and Loft consumer because a lot of shopping behaviors are psychographic. So the Loft customer dresses how she wants to feel, whereas the Ann customer goes through her agenda and thinks, “What do I need to look like for what I’m going to do today?” She wants to be appropriately dressed for what she does, and the Loft girl wants to feel good.
When people hear “Ann Taylor,” what do you want them to think of?
I think appropriateness is important. Every woman feels like if they buy something at Ann Taylor they will look stylish and appropriate.
How has the economic slowdown changed shopping?
Value and versatility have become very important. She needs an incentive to shop. Value was always part of Loft’s DNA. Loft was built on what we call surprising prices—that it’s great quality at surprising prices. About 70 percent to 80 percent of the assortment is under $50.
At Ann Taylor, we have started focusing on opening at good price points rather than better and best. That strategy is working very well. I think in uncertain economic times, value becomes more important.
So when you say new price points at Ann, what do you mean?
What do you have to do to get that customer into the store if she’s more cautious?
For this season, great fashion, color, great value, and versatility is getting her into the store. We’re in a colorful cycle. In a volatile economic period, it’s a pick-me-up. I used to wear black and gray. I have been wearing a lot of color lately. It makes you feel optimistic and positive. That trend has really helped retail this season. Everything we’ve offered in color—be it colorful tops, colored denim, colorful dresses, sandals, bracelets—has done very well.
What’s your go-to outfit?
A black dress and black pumps. Always.
You’ve worked in retail all your life. What drew you to it?
I graduated from college, and I did not know what I wanted to do. Macy’s (M) came to campus to interview for their training program, and I thought, “Let me give it a try.” I got the job and fell in love with the industry. The president of Macy’s at the time said, “If you don’t wake up every morning dying to go to work, then retailing is not for you; it has to be in your blood.” It was in my blood. I love the fact that every day is different. You can get to be creative one day, financial the next day, marketing the next. I love going to stores. I love talking to associates. I love talking to clients. There’s not a predictable day.
What was your first job?
I was in the training program at Macy’s in Atlanta, and my first job was assistant buyer of lingerie. Then I got into juniors. But accessories were really where I spent a lot of my life.
What are you seeing now among twentysomething women?
When they think about what they’re going to wear to work, it’s a more relaxed wardrobe than the baby boomer generation. And they’re far more comfortable and confident in what they wear to work. They are gravitating to separates. They’re gravitating to dresses.
I think that a woman’s work wardrobe has evolved. When I started out, you had to wear a suit, and the skirt had to be a certain length. You had to wear pantyhose. There are not any rules anymore.
Let’s talk a little bit about Ann Taylor because that’s been the unit that’s been more challenging.
We did not evolve quickly enough. And we have evolved; I think that we’re focusing on the things that she wants from us. We are known for dresses. And skirts and separates. We also have been known for suits, but we have made that business a little bit smaller. We had gotten a little too expensive. So we are introducing good price points to the business in every category and becoming a little bit more competitive.
And you’re also changing the stores?
Yes, we are. We are downsizing to about 4,000 square feet. We call them our jewel boxes. They have a very modern aesthetic. They showcase wardrobing in a very relevant way. And those new stores are doing very well.
I keep hearing you can’t survive if you don’t keep changing your company.
You cannot stand still. That’s why I try to meet with all levels of the company. I am out in the field. It’s not a very sexy saying, but I say, “You have to go down and mow the lawn sometimes.” You have to go down and back up again. You have to stay in touch.
In five years, do you think more people will be shopping online?
Yes. It’s growing and growing. Why wouldn’t you shop online? People will always love the social and physical aspects of a store: talking to someone and getting advice. That’s never going to go away. But I think online is going to supplement that purchasing behavior.
Could it be 50 percent of your sales in 10 years?
It definitely could be. It’s close to 15 percent now.
Are there designers and retailers that you admire and learn from?
There are certain online players that I think are doing a phenomenal job with customer service, fast shipping, ease of checkout. Like Shopbop. I want to be more like that, because women are time-starved. We need to fit a lot into our day and to be able to shop online and know your size, get your size, get the delivery within two days, check out within literally five seconds.
What was most surprising to you when you became CEO?
Being a female CEO is a rarity. The Fortune 1,000 companies, there are only 3 percent female CEOs, 35 of us. So when I go to conferences and I’m out and about, I am usually the only female CEO in the room. That saddens me. Did you read the article about how women can’t have it all, by Anne-Marie Slaughter? I was taken aback by that because I really feel like you have to work hard to have what you want. It’s about having what you want. I work hard at fulfilling my home responsibilities. My children are the love of my life, and I give my all when I’m at work. I have figured it out. I think that women can figure it out if they want to. And what saddens me is a lot of young women are opting out of the workforce because they’re not figuring it out or don’t think they can figure it out. If they want to have children, they can be a leader and have children at the same time. So it saddens me.
A year and a half ago we launched our Ann Power initiative, in partnership with Vital Voices, in training young girls to be the next female leaders of tomorrow, because that’s how important this is to me. Who better than us, Ann Taylor, 93 percent women? We are a company of women, for women; only women shop with us.
You said you learned how to balance. How do you do it?
One of my favorite mentors said to me that you have to learn to jettison the people and things out of your life that just don’t matter and put 100 percent of your energy into things that do have meaning to you. That was very liberating for me. I used to go to all these places because I couldn’t say no. Now I pick and choose, and I say no very easily, because I know what’s important to me. I only wish that I learned how to do that earlier in my life.