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Experiential Retailer Success with Club Libby Lu

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In 2000, Mary Drolet founded Club Libby Lu, an experiential specialty retailer that caters to tween girls ages six through twelve. Together with two partners, she created an interactive, unique shopping and play experience that has grown to ninety-three stores nationwide. Saks, Incorporated, acquired Club Libby Lu in 2003, leaving Drolet at the helm.

The store’s namesake was Drolet’s imaginary childhood friend. She and Libby Lu enjoyed many of the same activities that are part of the in-store experience today—singing, dancing, creating potions, and granting wishes with magic fairy dust.

Before founding Club Libby Lu, Drolet worked at Montgomery Ward & Co. and Claire’s Stores, Inc., where she held various executive roles in merchandising, marketing, and product development.

At the Chicago-based corporate office, known as the “Wish Factory,” Drolet is referred to as the “Procurer of Princess Paraphernalia.” She is also the mother of a tween-age girl and tween-age boy.

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Here is her story:

Q: Describe your company concept and product line.

A: Club Libby Lu is an experience-based retailer for tween girls ages six through twelve. Our mission is to make every little girl feel special.

Each store is sectioned into key zones that appeal to a variety of girls’ interests, including:

  • The Style Studio—During a “Libby Du™,” girls dress up as pretend characters such as a rock star or princess.
  • Sparkle Spa—Includes all bath products, cosmetics, fragrances, and the “Create-your-own” stations where girls mix spa products like shower gel and body lotion. They can also make their own custom-flavored lip gloss.
  • Ear Piercing—A simply “Ear-isistable” experience at Club Libby Lu, this special event in a girl’s life includes a memory certificate, a celebratory song, a special sticker, and a free Libby Charmette™.
  • Pooch Parlor—It’s just like shopping for your own dog. Girls choose from six adorable dogs, name them, dress them and take them home in a fancy carrier.
  • Shopping/Products—Our merchandise is designed around what is important to and hot among tween girls—cool stuff to decorate their rooms, sleepover kits, trendy apparel, and much more (books, music, stationery, etc.).

Q: Why did you start this company and when?

A: I’ve always dreamt of having my own company, and I chose retail because I had spent twenty-five years in the industry. The concept for Club Libby Lu really gelled in my mind when I was driving my daughter around weekend after weekend from one birthday party to another, and I realized that parties were a much bigger deal than they were when I was growing up.

That realization combined with an uncluttered marketplace spelled huge opportunity to me. When I came up with the idea, there were a lot of retailers targeting the teen market, but no one was narrowing in on “tweens,” so I decided to go for it.

The first Club Libby Lu opened in August 2000 at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois. Club Libby Lu has since grown to ninety-three stores nationwide.

Q: What were your initial goals?

A: I always intended to build a national retail chain—something that resonated with tweens. I wanted to make Club Libby Lu a really fun place for girls to be themselves and have fun being little girls. From the outset, we created a protective environment where it’s okay to be silly and yourself.

Q: Describe yourself and your family. What is your background and how does it relate to your company?

A:  My very supportive husband and I have two “tweenagers,” so a lot of my inspiration and ideas come from them and their friends. Tweens are part of my life in so many ways. So given my background in retail and my role as tween mom, I think Club Libby Lu was a natural fit for me.

Q: Have you ever experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of your life?

A: I think it was when I was driving my daughter around to all those birthday parties, before I started the company. I just remember thinking how I thought my one big party when I turned twelve was such a big deal, because I got to have a sleepover with a couple of my friends. We celebrated all my other birthdays growing up by having family over for my favorite dinner and a cake. I knew times were different but didn’t really “get it” until I saw all these elaborate parties for little girls.

Q: What process did you follow to develop the store concept and products? Were they all original products unique to Club Libby Lu—or did you source existing products and brand them as yours?

A: In developing the store concept and our products, we listened to our target. That’s how we still do it. We have regular focus groups with girls between the ages of six and twelve. We watch tween trends and relate products back to them. We’re proud to say our stores are designed by girls for girls, and all of our products are original to Club Libby Lu.

Q: What process did you follow to determine the store concept’s marketability?

A: Well, focus groups picked the logo, the store colors—almost everything. But nobody knows for sure a concept is marketable until you open the doors. The way you really test marketability is to put your best out there and keep tweaking. Not everything we did right out of the box worked, but we learned and adapted—a process we still practice today.

Q: Were there any setbacks in product development that had to be overcome?

A: Initially, it was difficult to get vendors to make private-label products for a one-store chain. So, I called in every favor I had and convinced them of the long-term viability of the concept (and reminded them in some cases it was me who helped them get into big department stores when they were the little guy!). In the earliest days of the business, I developed great relationships with lots of partners with whom I still do business today

Q: What was the biggest learning curve in terms of developing the stores/products?

A: Actually, the hardest thing for me was learning about other aspects of the business outside of product development: accounting, store construction, insurance, payroll, employee benefits—stuff like that.

Q: What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?

A: Word-of-mouth and viral marketing is huge and crucial to our target. It surprised me just how influential tween girls and their moms are among other tween girls and moms.

Q: What was the biggest learning curve in terms of marketing your product?

A: One thing we continue to learn as we market our stores and products is to keep it simple—clear messaging and visuals work better than a lot of words.

Q: How did you get involved with the Disney affiliations? How has this affected business?

A: Our relationship began with our Downtown Disney location, which we opened in 2004 in Anaheim, California. The partnership with Disney evolved, and when we presented our idea of a Hannah Montana exclusive makeover (the “Secret Celebrity” Libby Du™ Makeover), it was a perfect fit. Disney is a great partner, and their products have done well in our stores. We will continue exploring new Disney partnerships, as they are mutually beneficial and make sense.

Q: What was the experience like with Extreme Home Makeover?

A: It was so much fun and embodies what we want to represent as a company. Our entire organization rallied and got behind the effort. We even had individual employees who wanted to donate.

It was extremely rewarding to know we helped a deserving family. The little girl, Alex, had asked for a room in the spirit of CLL—her favorite store. We took all the key elements from our Club and made Alex her very own princess room. It was exciting to see her face light up when she realized she, too, had a “Princess Pad” just like the ones at Club Libby Lu.

The experience with Extreme Home Makeover led to a desire to do more. It inspired us to partner with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Club Libby Lu began partnering with St. Jude in 2006. The Club is honored to be the first children’s experience-based retailer to work with this important organization and to help continue its groundbreaking research and treatments that save children’s lives everywhere.

Q: How long does it take to get your products from idea to market?

A: Ideally we like to work about six to eight months out. Since we’re relatively small, however, we can adapt and turn some ideas into reality very quickly.

Q: How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom? What falls by the wayside?

A: Everything!

Q: What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?

A: My main support is my husband. We also have a fabulous nanny, who has been with us for many years. I don’t know how we would live without her.

I also have a top-notch senior-level executive team who loves the company as much as I do.

Q: How did you finance your business (personal contributions, loans from friends & family, loans from bank, credit cards, outside investors?)

A: Myself and two partners financed the business.

Q: What made you decide to sell the company to Saks in 2003? Can you share the terms of the deal?

A: It was an excellent opportunity for growth, and Saks is a terrific company. We shared a vision for Club Libby Lu, and they’ve been a great partner. Terms of the deal are proprietary.

Q: What has been your greatest success or “high point” in the process?

A: Every time I go into a store and see the effect Club Libby Lu has on little girls is a high point. I can be having a bad day, go into a store and see girls laughing, having fun, and feeling special, and I realize that’s why I do what I do.

Another moment stands out in my mind, and that’s when I heard a little girl’s mom speak publicly about how much a beanie from Club Libby Lu meant to her cancer-stricken daughter. This little girl was a St. Jude patient and had lost her hair to chemotherapy. Her mom said that when she placed a darling little beanie from our store on her head, her face lit up. She said when her daughter looked in the mirror, she smiled for the first time in a long time.

Q: Have you experienced a “low point” and if so, how did you rally yourself to get back on track?

A: There have been multiple low points that relate to operating a complicated, growing business. I’ve always gotten through those times by telling myself there’s no other choice but to keep going. I’m not the type to let the inevitable bumps in the road wreck my dream.

Q: Who has been your biggest source of inspiration? What keeps you going?

A: My entrepreneur dad and my daughter … really, my whole family and my love of the Club Libby Lu concept.

Q: Did anyone in particular help you along the way?

A: Too many friends and relatives to list and of course, my original partners—every single acquaintance, too!

Q: What advice would you offer other moms developing their products/ideas?

A: Starting your own business isn’t easy. You have to be committed to get through the ups and downs. A good business plan is key. You also need clearly defined goals at the outset and the tenacity to stick to them.

Q: Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you would like to share with other moms?

A: American Express is a great resource. Its small business services guided me through the painful process of developing a business plan.

Related Story: New Magazine for Tween Girls – Minus Sexual Overtones


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