This woman’s clothing retailer completed a successful turnaround in a decade of new ownership and redefined systems and products. This women’s clothing retailer completed a successful turnaround in a decade of new ownership and redefined systems and products. When Canadian-based Northern Reflections was sold seven years ago, it began a new era on its own. But it wasn’t without challenges, such as redesigning product lines and rebuilding IT infrastructure. Lalonnie Biggar and Bill Booth, managing directors, helped lead the reinvention that returned a once distressed business to profitability.

Northern Reflections has seen its share of corporate changes. Its lineage goes back to the Woolworth Corporation. In the 1980s, Woolworth expanded its specialty store portfolio with Northern Reflections, part of a shopping mall specialty store strategy. In the late ’90s, Woolworth became known as the Venator Group and changed its name in 2001 to mirror that of its most successful brand, Foot Locker.

At the same time, the parent company decided to focus on athletic apparel. Northern Reflections, founded as a division of Woolworth Canada in 1985 and peaking at 956 North American retail outlets in 1998, didn’t fit that bill. US stores were closed, and York Management purchased the remaining 364 Canadian outlets.

Rebuilding

First, merchandising systems were updated to free the company from Foot Locker’s mainframe. Guided by consultants at Karabus Management, Northern Reflections brought in ProfitLogic’s Pricing4Profit, Lawson Software’s financial system, and systems from Triversity, Store Tech, and NSB (since purchased by Epicor).

Prior to sale, the company began its loyalty program called Northern Friends, initially a points accumulator with data limited to how many friends used the system, how many dollars were spent, and average transaction size. But thanks to the NSB investment, by 2004, the program assessed individual customers, allowing the company to segment them on certain criteria and communicate with focused groups, tailoring products and services. “In the last few years, we’ve heard other companies talking about CRM, but our first friends program started in 2000,” Booth said. “Now we are more analytical with the program and can focus on what products will appeal to certain customers.”

During its early years, product lines revolved solely around casual weekend wear like fleece, cotton twilled pants, denim, and T-shirts. Products were for a variety of ages, casual, comfortable, and easy to wear and care for. At the turn of the century, the company recognized two important facts—casual workplace clothing was exploding, and competitors were getting into casual dress.

This meant product lines needed to evolve to suit any day of the week. Today, its products work for women, whether they are going to a BBQ or to the office. Northern Reflections clothing fits the lifestyle of women who love traveling, are avid gardeners, and enjoy birdwatching.

Everything from T-shirts, sweaters, woven shirts, light and mid-weight jackets, fitted pants, seasonal items like shorts, and coordinating accessories like jewelry provide women with just about anything. Products are designed inhouse and styled to help women organize outfits.

“Our products are uniquely designed in our Toronto office centered on our expertise at interpreting outfits,” Biggar said. “We want customers to find and see complete head-to-toe outfits in the way the designer created it, the product manager executed production, and the visual team presents it.”

Focus on customers

Although the company closed its American stores, online and phone shopping allowed it to continue competing for dollars south of the border. Its initial setup of an e-commerce site was directed at American consumers.

One thing the company saw was a difference in perception of products between Americans and Canadians. Americans saw the company as it used to be.

“They were looking for traditional product lines in larger sizes,” Booth said. “We made sure we maintained a more comfort-oriented inventory ratio so American women could find what they wanted.”

As the system grew, changes were focused on replicating the feel of in-store shopping online and over the phone. Rather than operate a call center designed to accurately fulfill orders, sales professionals have intimate product knowledge and can suggest items for particular outfits or customers. Also, pant fits are categorized so customers can go to the Web site, order based on a fit category, and count on consistency from fabric to fabric and season to season.

The company also invested in Canadian stores. Focus groups were consulted to find out what was most important about in-store shopping. The biggest priority was the attentiveness and attitude of the staff, which Biggar said is part of the company’s legacy.

Many store associates have been customers themselves and are equipped to help customers make decisions, serving them in a friendly manner. This attitude comes from the top as administratively the company invests in interns who often return as full timers and has a system of incentives based on corporate results leading to bonuses for all.

But store design had to be altered. Customers wanted enhanced lighting so product colors were easier to see in the store. They wanted larger fitting rooms. Whenever a new store is built or an old one renovated, fitting rooms must have seating, plenty of hooks, and feel comfortable. Northern Reflections also learned customers were intimidated by walls of folded products and were afraid of messing them up.

“We converted our visual presentations, moved away from big walls of folded products, and half hung pants. Now we have a lot of face outs, with layered head to toe outfits, so the customer could see how things work on a hanger or visual mannequins,” said Biggar. “We invested in more full and half body mannequins so customers could see entire outfits.”

With a 1.3 million strong community of Northern Friends, Northern Reflections can specifically target consumers with worldviews similar to its corporate philosophy. Designers are inspired by nature, and the company is very conscious about everything, from where it sources fabrics and production to using as many recycled or recyclable materials in product and process as possible. This commitment to a shared vision between corporation and customer is critical in turbulent economic times.

“We are moving forward as a community partner and staying true to our natural and simple brand essence,” Biggar concluded.