The first time I walked into a Charming Charlie store—roughly seven years ago—it was at the insistence of my mother. “You’ll love it,” she said. “It’s a really big jewelry store.”
And it was. The unit, located in an open-air shopping center in Leesburg, Va., resembles a department store more than a boutique. Earrings, scrunchies, wallets, necklaces, teen-friendly key chains, etc.—all offered in multiple colorways—swath huge displays. In addition to mounds of costume jewelry, the store stocked sterling silver, bags and wallets, beauty items, and cutesy giftables (in the vein of cat-face coffee mugs).
I adore a megastore. And I love cheap-n-chic costume jewelry. But try as I might, I couldn’t fall under Charlie’s spell (more on why that was in a minute). So when JCK news director Rob Bates reported that the retailer was liquidating all 261 of its stores last week, I wasn’t surprised.
Charming Charlie senior vice president and chief financial officer Alvaro E. Bellon cited “inclement weather disrupting the shopping experience” and “the new tax laws that reduced consumer spending,” and “the general downturn in the retail industry” as key reasons for the company’s downfall.
But more impactful to Charming Charlie’s demise, in my mind, were the “merchandising miscalculations” the company cited when filing for bankruptcy in 2017.
The store’s endless selection of fashion knickknacks looked enchanting from afar. But up close, the magic dissipated. The trends featured so cheerfully on massive, creative displays felt dated. Even the more timeless jewelry designs fell flat: In millennial parlance, everything was basic. There was little to drool over—at least for the over-18 shopper.
And quality-wise, many pieces felt on par with those at a kid-focused Claire’s boutique, but they were clearly vying for an adult consumer. Cheap materials and evidence of shoddy construction abounded. (And, from a competition standpoint, bottom-dollar jewelry made overseas is too easily procured on Amazon—I just searched for “women’s rings” under $25 on Amazon and was offered 10,000 options.)
Mass-produced costume jewelry that has a quality look and feel exists. But it takes a discerning eye to recognize the nuanced differences between fashion pieces that can pass for fine- or demi-fine, and costume baubles that broadcast their intrinsic value.
Walking through Charming Charlie, it struck me that its merchandisers were lacking in those skills, and that they also underestimated how much more sophisticated the tastes of its target consumer had become—largely as a result of the slick influencer and branded content on social media many of us consume daily.
To be sure, all that social media imagery has an educational effect on our eyes. If you’re a woman who’s been studying and coveting Kim Kardashian’s layered solid-gold necklaces day after day on Instagram, you might notice that H&M’s or Claire’s $15 facsimiles aren’t as shiny—or have fewer details—as the ones Kim K. wears. Consumers now expect more, in both the design and feel of a piece of jewelry. Even if it costs $15.
Walmart-quality jewelry will be recognized as exactly that, even if it’s merchandised in a boutique setting. And shoppers are becoming more attuned to quality and the value of thoughtful design details in their consumables. The confluence of these realities changes the game for retailers of non-fine jewelry considerably.
Top: Inside a Charming Charlie store (photo courtesy of Charming Charlie)@jckmagazine
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