A new CEO and a focused team have given this multi-channel specialty retailer the strength to succeed. Sheryl Clark came to Florida-based Boston Proper after spending years with retail giant Old Navy as head merchant. She joined the company in 2009 as president and spent the next year working with Boston Proper Founder Michael Tiernan, who now acts as chairman of the board. 

That December, the company added CEO to Clark’s title after she led one of the most successful seasons the direct mail and e-commerce company had ever seen. She started by focusing on improving merchandise productivity. 

Coming off a soft year in 2008, she said Boston Proper needed to pinpoint what its customer wanted, what was successful in the past, and what was needed to evolve the business. She started by revisiting some branding work the company had done in the past and made brand books for every employee in the company. 

“Everyone has to use the same filter for execution, otherwise you can’t create a strong brand image for your customer,” said Clark. “For every vendor, recruiter, and bank we met, and everyone we continue meeting to this day, the first thing I give them is this brand book. The second is our most recent catalogue.”

From the creative team to the merchandising and operations teams, as well as the staff in the call center, each employee is aligned with what’s important to the Boston Proper customer, who she is, and what she values. “That’s the single most important thing I did, and that was the first thing I did when I got here,” she said. 

To further improve merchandise productivity, Clark went through the company’s catalogue, which is sent out about every three weeks, and cut approximately 50 of the 250 items out of each book. It wasn’t a slash and burn process, however. 

She and her team laid out the book in a more editorial fashion, looking for stronger points of view for the customer while staying aligned with Boston Proper’s brand. Although it was a tremendous risk, Clark said the company saw great results.

“By the end of the year, we had decreased our SKU count by 23% but increased the productivity of each style by 29%,” she said. “We proved that less is more, and then we empowered the creative team to take over.”

Improved supply chain

Second on Clark’s list was improving Boston Proper’s supply chain. In the past, the company used a single agent in Hong Kong to supply about a third of its goods. The other option was going to market and buying off the line. Product development wasn’t part of the equation. 

Said Clark, “I empowered our senior director of sourcing, production, and product development and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to change this. First of all, it’s not a balanced supply chain. Second, there is so much opportunity out there. What do we want to do?’”

Together, Clark and her director developed a three-legged sourcing and supply chain stool. Leg number one became the empowered senior director. Leg number two became product development, and now the company uses sources in Hong Kong and China, Peru, Mexico, and the US. 

Understanding that one of the draws customers have to Boston Proper is its unique merchandise, without an inhouse design team, Clark had to think outside of the box when it came to figuring out how to continue giving the company’s customers what they’ve come to expect. She contacted key suppliers, the third leg of the stool, and explained her goals. 

“Using the Boston Proper filter, they provide products exclusively to us, using the color, trend, and styles we have in our brand book,” she said. “Starting with the fall season, 70% of our business is custom designed, enabling us to increase our initial mark-up on our products significantly over the previous year.” 

Improved operations

To improve operations, Clark focused on tightening internal processes, calendars, and disciplines to get the company working smoothly and closer to market. “We were basically putting orders out before we put a catalogue together,” Clark said. “If something didn’t fit in the book, we pushed it through. There were some bad product decisions based on the fact that the calendar didn’t work to our benefit.”

Now, Boston Proper puts the catalogue together first and gives out orders second, making it easier to ensure every item in the catalogue has gone through the Boston Proper style filter, belongs in the book, and fits with what the customer wants. “When you think about Boston Proper, our number one goal is to interpret current fashion with an age-appropriate fit for a sophisticated female customer,” said Clark.

The company’s target customer age is 47, with an age range reaching from 35 to 55. A lot of time is spent debating age-appropriate fit, but it’s much easier to narrow down the definition of a sophisticated female customer. “She’s college educated, owns her own home, and her average household income is $100,000,” said Clark. “She’s savvy, works, travels a lot, and is active; she wants to find clothes quickly and efficiently when she’s shopping.”

A Boston Proper catalogue goes out about every three weeks, and 65% of that book is new. On top of understanding its brand, Boston Proper uses five words to describe and lead all of its production and creative endeavors to ensure its product selection matches that specific target audience: daring, distinctive, sophisticated, self-assured, and sensuous. 

Those five words allow Boston Proper to pick the right cover for each regular and specialty book, including Boston Proper Sport, Boston Proper Travel, and the new “It” book, launched this fall. 

“We built the ‘It’ book around the top 10 looks for fall,” said Clark. “The book shows her how, in an age-appropriate manner, she can take what’s happening out there from a trend perspective, wear it, and feel very self-assured.”

With a tagline of “Wear it like no one else,” a streamlined process, and a burgeoning e-commerce platform, it’s no wonder Clark sees Boston Proper’s future as bright.