Independent Spotlight: Crimson Mim

Crimson Mim is expanding by appealing to its core customer’s more serious side.

The six-year-old women’s footwear and apparel boutique opened its second location in April, in Palo Alto, Calif., six miles from the original store in Los Altos.

But while the new shop carries a similar brand roster to the original, its approach to style selection is unique. “We have mostly the same designers but virtually none of the same merchandise in the new store,” said owner Christine Campbell.

The stores target the same 35- to 50-year-old female demographic, she explained, but each one caters to different needs. The original location, for instance, features more casual styles, while the Palo Alto shop — situated near Stanford University and Sand Hill Road, a haven for venture capital firms — draws a crowd looking for dressier and professional styles.

Shoes make up about 20 percent of sales in the new 989-sq.-ft. space, compared with 35 percent in the Los Altos store. But that could change as Campbell heads into spring ’12. “This September’s market will be the first one I go to when the Palo Alto store is open,” she said. “I could look at new designers specifically for that store. We’ll have to see what’s out there.”

Campbell’s current lineup of brands includes Bettye Muller, Bernardo, Butter, Chie Mihara, Attilio Giusti Leombruni, Loeffler Randall, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Sendra Boots, Rachel Comey, Anyi Lu and Coclico.

Footwear ranges in price from $150 to $700, with the sweet spot going from $250 to $395.

For her part, Jessie Randall, creative director and president of Loeffler Randall, said she admires Campbell’s business acumen, as well as her sense of style. “Christine is very smart and strategic about her business,” she said. “She has run Crimson Mim very wisely and she is thoughtful about her buys. I love that Christine is always looking for new, innovative ways to expand the reach of her store.”

Dana Dettling, an account executive for Bettye Muller, said Campbell has a gift for understanding the consumer’s needs. “Not only is Christine so pleasant to do business with, but she truly knows her customer and what she wants,” she said. “[Her customer] is very stylish and fashion forward. The lines and collections that Crimson Mim carries reflect that. Everything in the store has a purpose and place, and that detailed direction is what I believe makes her store so successful.”

Apart from product selection, Campbell has set out to capture a specific vision for the new store’s design, which features clean, modern lines, concrete floors, white display shelving and lots of natural light.

“I felt the spaces called for something different,” she said. “The Town and Country Village, [in which we’re located], is a 50- or 60-year-old outdoor mall. The floors are concrete, the ceiling is wood. It had all these skylights already. I thought, let’s make a space that reflects what this building already is so we can see the history of the space.”

By contrast, the original 900-sq.-ft. store has a more intimate, feminine feel with a vintage chandelier and red fabrics. “I wanted it to be like your chicest friend’s closet, where you make these really exciting discoveries,” said Campbell.

Her foray into retail started almost eight years ago, when she sold her marketing consulting firm specializing in technology-related clients, which she ran with her ex-husband.

“I really wanted to be in the fashion industry, so I did my research” she said. “People said, ‘There aren’t any [independent] stores like this around here because nobody wants them.’ But I had the opposite feeling. I thought, I want one, and I’m sure there are plenty of people like me. And it turned out there were.”

After a couple years of planning and research, the first location opened on Valentine’s Day in 2005 and received an immediate boost from media coverage, Campbell said. “‘Daily Candy’ ran a story on us that week, and it brought in so many people,” she said. “From the beginning we were busy. It was a great time to open a store.”

And even at that early stage, Campbell had her eyes on expanding. “It was always my intention to have more than a single location,” she said.

Then, the recession hit.

“Business suddenly dropped off tremendously,” she said, recalling the events of September 2008. “It put [my expansion] plans on hold.”

Recognizing the need to react with urgency, Campbell reached out to vendors to try to reduce her orders for fall and pre-holiday deliveries. “I called all our vendors and said, ‘Is there any way we can take a couple items off our orders in a way that won’t hurt you guys?’ I think every vendor we worked with allowed us to cut a couple of items. And because we did that, we were able to diminish the amount of inventory so we didn’t have a tidal wave of items coming in. With inventory reduction, we managed to stay in business.”

And though the business has rebounded, Campbell said it’s unlikely to ever return to the boom times of 2006. “We’re not even close [to those sales numbers],” she said, declining to divulge revenue. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to those numbers because we’re not carrying the same amount of inventory. One of the things the recession taught me is to manage inventory a lot better. And while our gross numbers are not back to pre-recession levels, our profitability is a lot better.”

Campbell said sales in the Los Altos store stabilized about a year ago, prompting her to revisit her growth plans. “When we returned to a steady state, I started thinking about what’s next,” she said. “When I looked around, I saw a lot of available retail space, and landlords are more willing to negotiate with tenants.”

E-commerce is the next step, though Campbell said she’s been reluctant to enter that realm. “I feel like they are two different businesses,” she said. “Having a retail store [that] provides customers with a high-contact, highly developed customer relationship is very specific, and I wasn’t sure that we could replicate that online.”

But the success of the store’s Facebook page has given her more confidence that the Crimson Mim experience can be translated into the digital world. “I now feel comfortable communicating with our customers on Facebook, so we’re ready to have that same relationship in e-commerce with people we’ve never met,” she said.

The site has been designed and will soon enter beta testing. Campbell said her hope is that it goes live by August.

And even as Campbell settles in to the new store and prepares for the e-commerce launch, expansion is still on her mind. “I’m always thinking about another location, but right now my plate is pretty full,” she said.


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