White House Black Market’s Donna Noce on the Power of Personalized Customer Relationships

When Donna Noce was young, her mother couldn’t convince the admitted tomboy to put on a dress. “I actually cut off all the hair on my Barbie dolls,” Noce said. During college, however, the pre-veterinary medicine major took a job working for a chain of local retail stores and was eventually asked by the owner if she wanted to learn to become a fashion buyer. Noce agreed, and after watching customers buy merchandise she had brought to the store, “I just fell in love with the whole idea of being in a business where I could predict what a consumer would want.”

During her more than three decades in the retail business, Noce has worked for brands including Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor LOFT and Lerner New York. In 2007, she became president of White House Black Market, a chain owned by Chico’s FAS that sells designs focused around the classic color combination.

During a recent visit to Wharton, Noce talked with Knowledge@Wharton about the brand’s core customers, its growth plans and what the company’s entry into Billings, Mont., can teach about the importance of creating a personal relationship with shoppers.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us about your target market and what the brand has done to differentiate itself from competitors.

Donna Noce: Our target market is women [with a] median age of about 45. We focus our efforts around a woman who’s at a stage in her life where she’s very busy, primarily a working woman. She’s probably got one or two kids left at home [or] … her children may be out of the house and on their way to college.

We saw a niche for ourselves about five years ago when I joined the company. Where do women in their mid-40s go to look current, but not inappropriate, for their age? We identified this little sweet spot in the market that we were going to go after. Being different is very much a part of who we are. There’s a famous quote that I like to remind my team about all the time. It’s from Coco Chanel, one of the most famous designers. She said, “To truly be irreplaceable, one must be different.” To be irreplaceable as a brand, we try to maintain uniqueness.

We do it primarily through two ways. First and most important is the relationship that we build with our customers. We have an incredibly high standard of customer service. Even when the economy was tough, back in 2008, the one thing we didn’t sacrifice was our associates and the payroll of those associates who were interacting with our customers. We felt that if we built relationships at that time, regardless of whether our customer had money to spend, she would come back when she was ready to spend. And she did come back.

The second way we differentiate ourselves is in our product. We have an international design team in Fort Myers, Fla. We design all of our products very uniquely. We try to not only provide our customer with the current fashion, but also give incredible value through the quality, fit and fabrics that we use.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us a little bit about how widespread your network is. How many stores do you have and where are most of them located?

Noce: We’re located all across continental U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Today, we’re operating about 400 of what we call our front line, or our full-price boutiques. We refer to them as boutiques. And we have about 40 outlet stores that are located in outlet centers across the country. But we are in the midst of a very big growth spurt, and we’re going to open about another 60 stores this year.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has the customer changed since you began working in retail? And what are some of the key things that have stayed the same?

Noce: I’ll start with what has stayed the same. I think what has stayed the same is that women want to feel special, regardless of whether they’re shopping for clothes or going for a spa treatment. [Another] thing that has stayed very much the same in the 35 years I’ve been doing this is the relationship, and the importance of the relationship, with the customer. When someone comes in the door of one of our stores, you don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life on that particular day. I think whether or not that woman is going to spend money that day is not the important part of that relationship. The important part is whether or not she’s going to remember that interaction she had with [the sales team] in a very positive way and come back and spread the word. I don’t think that has ever changed in retail.

Technology has opened up a 24/7 world to most consumers. They have the ability, from the luxury of their own home, to evaluate what they do in comparison to everyone else. That has changed the dynamics of how we do business. Everything is so immediate today that our ability to respond with an even greater sense of urgency has become more and more a priority for most retailers. And because the customer can shop at her leisure and she can shop infinitely, how do you stand out among all the noise that’s created, not only when she walks through the mall, but when she’s sitting at her kitchen table having a cup of coffee? You have to be able to cut through that. That’s where maintaining the uniqueness — and we do it through our product and our service — is very important.

Knowledge@Wharton: Chico’s as a company and White House Black Market as a brand are, as you mentioned, primarily U.S. focused. But there’s all this talk of the global economy and the potential in the emerging markets — India, China, Brazil. Do they fit into your business plan going forward?

Noce: We are exploring opportunities internationally. We’ve not decided yet on what that’s going to look like, but we are in the process right now of evaluating all the opportunities for the brands that sit within the entire Chico’s portfolio, White House Black Market being one of four.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you mentioned, your design team is international, so that’s global.

Noce: Yes.

Knowledge@Wharton: And I’m assuming that you do some sourcing globally.

Noce: Yes, probably 98% of our production is out of the country. Most of it is in Asian-based countries and has been for a number of years.

Knowledge@Wharton: Then there’s the question of social media and providing multi-channel brand experiences, which has become increasingly important. What are some of the key tools you need to be successful in that realm today?

Noce: Multi-channel — omni-channel — has become the buzzword of the year. We’ve been very successful with our social media efforts. [Recently,] we hit 500,000 fans on our Facebook page, which we celebrated gloriously. We launched our Facebook page about two-and-a-half years ago….

What social media allows you to do is engage with your customer on a very consistent basis. It also allows you to provide some relevance to her life. I’m a huge believer in adding value to our customers. I don’t view social media as just the ability to throw noise out to her. I want to insure that if I’m going to impose on her personal time and I’m going to engage her, I’m adding value.

I don’t think social media needs to be hard selling. I think that women want to feel as though they’re part of a community, part of the same relevant interests. That’s how we use our social media. One of the things we do that is highly unusual in the retail environment is we allow our customers to post on our Facebook page. Most retailers will only allow you to post replies. Our customers are very engaged with us because we allow them to share. As president of the brand, I use social media every day of my life because every night — I have a reputation for this — before I close my eyes I go online and read through our Facebook page. It allows me to stay in touch with my customer.

I think the crux of that omni-channel, multi-channel experience has to be that: If your customer is your top priority, she needs to be your top priority in every touch point you have with her. That needs to feel very seamless. So I will jump on Facebook and respond to a customer as fast as I’ll walk up to a customer in a boutique and introduce myself and engage in a conversation. I think you have an obligation to insure that you engage your customer the same way regardless of whether you’re speaking to her in person or through a different medium.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talked about a light touch on your outreach. Could you give me a couple of examples of how you do that which might be different from the way other brands handle it?

Noce: First of all, I listen to my customer. I’ll give you a very fun example of a positive outcome. This is going back about two years. I was online. I logged into our Facebook page and I saw these posts coming up, 30 of them, all from women in Billings, Mont. I started reading through them, and the gist was: “Oh my God, we don’t have a White House Black Market in Billings, Mont. Why don’t you come to Billings?”

So the next morning, I went to the office and got on the phone to the head of real estate. I asked: “Why don’t we have a store in Billings, Mont.? Find me a space.” Sure enough, he found me a space. And this September, we had the grand opening of the store. It was on television. I did radio appearances. We did a ribbon cutting, [received] a key to the city, the whole nine yards. The women were so excited that somebody actually listened to them and [they were also excited] about the power of social media.

Now that’s an extreme example. A not-so-extreme example is when somebody has a bad experience in one of our stores. Not only do we respond on our Facebook page openly, because I believe in being very open, but I or my head of store operations also call the customer personally.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you are not reacting to something that you see on that page, what kind of communications do you do?

Noce: We share our excitement about product launches. We ask questions about preferences. We polled all of our Facebook fans about a year ago on what color haven’t we done for you that you’d like to see us do. The No. 1 response was purple. That’s what we delivered, and they remembered it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did it work?

Noce: It did. It worked. It was fabulous.

We also use the medium for special events. So we’ll have unique offerings that we’ll put out just for our Facebook fans. That has been very successful as well. While it’s somewhat revenue generating, it creates the buzz and excitement and it makes them feel special.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your company has a very specific brand identity. It’s about this black and white clothing. I realize you have some additional colors like purple incorporated into the clothing as well. But some would see focusing on black and white as a limitation for the brand. Do you think of it that way? How do you make it work to your advantage?

Noce: It’s so simple — it’s the simplicity of what we do. We’re not just about doing black and white clothing. We’re about helping women learn how to take a foundation of a wardrobe and build around that season after season. When we introduced color into the brand, which only happened about four-and-a-half years ago, it had a remarkable impact on the rate of growth. It’s difficult to do nothing but black and white, which is what the business did for a number of years. But the importance of maintaining that foundation is based in the simplicity of asking any woman what you would find hanging most in her closet. It’s going to be black and white.

What we do is leverage that authority to teach her, not just how to shop and buy a lot of clothes, but how to build a real working wardrobe.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you see as some of the key fashion trends now? Popular color, styles — what’s happening? What’s going to be happening this year?

Noce: Oh, God, it’s all about pants. For me, it’s all about pants this year. Color’s been explosive for the past two years — to the point where women are ready to settle down. When I was in Europe, all of the big designers came down the runway with nothing but black and white. So I think we’re going to start to see a migration away from the explosion of color to a model that looks like what we do, which is heavy black and white with an accent of color.

We are definitely seeing a resurgence of the simplicity of dressing in a dress. I think dresses are going to become a big part of women’s staple wardrobes again. And the skinny ankle pant — bringing back [the style of] Audrey Hepburn with a little pair of flats.

Knowledge@Wharton: Older women are trying to dress younger these days. What does that mean for your brand?

Noce: Forties are the new 30, 50s are the new 40. Age is such a state of mind. I think what’s important is that women dress in a way that is comfortable for them and appropriate from their perspective. I don’t want to look like my 27-year-old daughter. But my 27-year-old daughter and I have a lot of the same clothes hanging in our closet. It’s just how we put them together.

What we try to do is provide current style, current fashion in a very appropriate manner. The advice I always give women about fashion is you have to look in the mirror and feel comfortable. You have to feel beautiful, and you have to be able to walk into a room with great confidence knowing that you feel and look appropriate for the occasion. I don’t get so hung up on the fashion piece as much as I get hung up on the “do what’s right for you.” And what we try to do is view everything through the eyes of, as I said, a woman who’s in her 40s. You can be in your 20s and shop with us or in your 60s and shop with us, but keeping that focus has been a big part of our success and hopefully will continue to be.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you choose retail as a career?

Noce: Oh, it was crazy. When I started college I was a pre-veterinary medicine major. So the big joke in my family is my mom still tells me, “I can’t believe you do this for a living because I couldn’t even get you to put a dress on.” I was a tomboy, and it was not ever on my radar screen. I didn’t grow up saying I wanted to be a fashion designer. I actually cut off all the hair on my Barbie dolls.

But when I was in college, I had to take a part-time job. I started working for this gentleman who owned two very small, local stores. And he said to me, “How would you like to buy for the one store?” And I said … “It’s extra cash, sounds good to me.” And I started working with him. He took me into Manhattan and taught me how to do it. I’ll never forget the first time the merchandise that I picked out for that store came in and it sold. I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.” I fell in love with it. I just fell in love with the whole idea of being in a business [where] I could predict what a consumer would want. And then have the exposure of watching how it made them feel.

Then I left there and I took a job with a bigger company. My career just took off. I got up every morning — and I still do — with this incredible passion and this can’t-wait-to-get-to-work attitude. I realized I had fallen into what I was intended to do. What I love about the industry is it allows me to be incredibly creative, but it also has a very strong foundation in business. Balancing this very creative side with this strong business acumen and applying those two skills and talents together to run a business, a fashion business, is incredibly rewarding — challenging, but incredibly rewarding.

Knowledge@Wharton: And what about your experiences from your time in school? Has that proved helpful to you in your job, and how?

Noce: You know what, if I could go back to school every year, even at this age and at this stage of my life, I would because education is one of the most incredible gifts that we get. I can remember back in school thinking to myself, what am I ever going to do with all of this information? As I look back now, that foundation, whether it was algebraic in nature, scientific in nature or grammatical in nature — all of it built this foundation of the successful professional I’ve grown into today….

One of the smart things I’ve done through my entire career is to allow myself to go back and put myself in a learning institution, not always a traditional school or classroom environment, but to improve myself both personally and professionally. I’ve been able to mature on so many levels. I think that’s what education does for you. It gives you maturity at different stages in your life. Some of it you use immediately, and some of it you carry with you for a number of years.

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