Redefining Claire’s for the next generation

Retail Gets Real Episode 299: CMO Kristin Patrick on how the 62-year-old jewelry and accessories company keeps it fresh and fun for every generation
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

For many customers of a certain age, Claire’s is a brand that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia — it’s where they got their ears pierced or bought their first piece of trendy jewelry or accessory.

“I think what makes Claire's near and dear to people's hearts is that you often experience it during a rite of passage the first time you go. That’s often when you're getting a first piercing,” says Chief Marketing Officer Kristin Patrick on this special episode of the Retail Gets Real podcast, recorded live at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show in New York City.

The original founder of the company, Rowland Schaefer, “used to say that the company and the brand was ageless, and it serviced customers between the ages of two to 92,” she says. “You walk into a Claire’s and it is just fun, and it doesn’t matter how old you are.”

NRF 2023

Did you miss us in NYC? Take a look at our NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show event recap.

Patrick, a retail veteran who has worked at The Walt Disney Co., Calvin Klein, Gap, Lucky, Revlon and PepsiCo, was brought in to redefine the brand for a new generation and make it relevant again.

“I think a lot of times a brand reboot helps to set the vision for the rest of the company because you're listening to consumers,” she says. “The first thing I did was try to understand who the founder was and what his vision was, and I really got in there and started talking to this generation. I'm sort of lucky because my daughter's Gen Z, and so it's like I have a built-in focus group with her and her friends.”

Today Claire’s marketing strategy is focused on Generation Z and the Alphas, or what Patrick calls “Gen Zalphas.” Part of that means going where this new generation of customers is spending its time, including TikTok and the metaverse. In October, Claire’s debuted ShimmerVille on Roblox, a digital world to explore, work, play, shop and connect with friends.

“If anybody should be there, it's Claire's, because it's so our consumer,” Patrick says.

Listening to customers has also helped Claire’s tap into what they want next, including apparel, home accessories and even cafés. “This is a generation that tells you what they think,” she says. “So, we're constantly talking to them.”

Listen to the full episode to hear more about Patrick’s career journey in retail, Claire’s partnerships with Walmart and Macy’s, the importance of a brand’s design language and how the Claire’s team stays on top of the latest trends.

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Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Sarah Rand:        Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone everywhere, every day. I'm Sarah Rand from the National Retail Federation, stepping in for Bill Thorne today and recording on-site from NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show, where we have 35,000 industry professionals gathered in New York City for the industry's most important event. Our guest today is Kristin Patrick, EVP and chief marketing officer of Claire's. We'll talk to Kristin about her company's ongoing transformation and how they're connecting with a whole new generation of consumers. Kristin, welcome to the Big Show and Retail Gets Real.

Kristin Patrick:    Thank you so much for having me. It is packed here. 

Sarah Rand:        It is packed.

Kristin Patrick:    Oh my goodness. Well, congratulations.

Sarah Rand:        And your session was packed a little while ago.

Kristin Patrick:    Oh, yes. That was so great. Thank you.

Sarah Rand:        Tell us a little bit about yourself. Give us your background. Where did you come from? How did you end up at Claire's?

Kristin Patrick:    I've been doing marketing for a long time and I've toggled across industries. I started my career at the Walt Disney Company, so I spent some time in entertainment. I've worked in fashion for Calvin Klein, Gap Inc., I was the chief marketing officer for Liz Claiborne's Lucky brand. I spent time in the beauty industry at Revlon. I was the chief marketing officer for Playboy, which I will write a book about someday because I was there when Hefner was still alive. That was really interesting, as you can imagine. Most recently, I was the chief marketing officer for Pepsi. I stepped down from that role and really took some time to think about what I wanted to do as my next step. One of the things I think I struggled with at Pepsi is, I didn't let my daughter drink blue can Pepsi.

I remember having my team over for a dinner and put blue can Pepsi in the fridge, and I felt like this isn't real in terms of what I let my daughter do. When this Claire's thing came up, it was such a great opportunity. It's a 50-year-old brand, it's a global brand. There's 2,800 stores around the world, 300-plus franchises. We pierced millions and millions of ears a year. There was something about this consumer and this generation that we service that I just really became enamored with. Quite frankly, I was excited about the reboot opportunity, taking a brand with that much history and making it relevant again. I have to say it's been a really fun road that we've been on as a company.

Sarah Rand:        You've been at Claire's for almost two years?

Kristin Patrick:    A year and a half, at this point. 

Sarah Rand:        A year and a half, OK. When you think about the transformation that you're working on, was that the first thing that they asked you to take on?

Kristin Patrick:    Yeah, they did. I was brought on to redefine the brand for a new generation. I think a lot of times the brand reboot helps to set the vision for the rest of the company because you're listening to consumers. The first thing I did was I tried to understand who the founder was and what his vision was. <laugh> And I really got in there and started talking to this generation. I'm sort of lucky because my daughter's Gen Z.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Kristin Patrick:     It's like I have a built-in focus group with her and her friends, so that's cool. But, we started by defining the brand and what it stands for. It was a combo of looking back in history, talking to consumers and completely rebooted it, even in terms of what business categories we now are going to be getting into. So, we've been on this really interesting path.

Sarah Rand:        Can you talk a little bit about who your core customer is at this point?

Kristin Patrick:    Interestingly, and right before this we were talking, but the founder used to say that the company and the brand was ageless.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. 

Kristin Patrick:    It serviced customers between the ages of two to 92. Because what could happen is you walk into a Claire's and it is just fun and it doesn't matter how old you are. But really our consumer is Gen Z, it's 14- to 27-year-olds, and then the Alphas, 13 and under. A good crux of our business comes from the younger generation, the Alphas. But it's interesting because we get consumers between the ages of 18 and up, and they stay with the brand. I think what happens is you start becoming a mom or a dad and you end up coming back to Claire's with your kids because the brand's been around so long. So, we definitely classify it by ‘Gen Zalpha’ is what I call it, the Zs and the Alphas. Then, we do get everybody else, but my marketing strategy is focused on spends in those areas.

Sarah Rand:        The loyalty that you're talking about is something that I think a lot of retailers don't get a chance to experience and appreciate. I mean, I, myself, pretty sure I was at a Claire's and I took my daughter and my son to Claire’s in the last year. It's now become a multi-generational, not just where we shop, but that experience. 

Kristin Patrick:    The loyalty is insane. In fact, we launched a loyalty program about two years ago and we have 15 million members in it already. I mean, that is a huge audience. We are constantly talking to them and they mean the world to us. We actually have a group of those loyalists, that we speak to on a regular basis to talk about new product categories and what they think about what we're doing. A loyalty program is tremendously important. We're really lucky because I think what makes Claire's near and dear to people's hearts is that you often experience it during a rite of passage. The first time you go there is often when you're getting a first piercing.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. 

Kristin Patrick:     I just remember, I couldn't wait to get my ears pierced. My mom was like, ‘No, not until you're 12,” or whatever, but that is such a big deal and quite emotional for some people. 

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. How do you distinguish when you look at Gen Z, Zalpha, Alphas— 

Kristin Patrick:    Yeah.

Sarah Rand:        How do you stay relevant? How do you make sure that they all look at you first?

Kristin Patrick:    That's been, I think, the biggest path that we've been on. We used to be a fleet of retail stores, and now we're really evolving to an omnichannel experience, a lifestyle brand. We're now in the metaverse. So first of all, we have to really understand the consumer, what they're thinking, what they're feeling. Part of the transition of the business and company is to be where the consumer is. They're not just shopping in Claire's retail stores. They're in Macy's and Walmart. They're online. We're putting ourselves there and they definitely are playing Roblox. 

Sarah Rand:        Tell me about the metaverse. Where are you? Is it Roblox?

Kristin Patrick:    Yeah, it's Roblox and it has been, seriously, if anybody should be there it's Claire's because it's so our consumer. We did, we took a little bit different of a tactic, I think, than some other brands and businesses. We created a piece of intellectual property called ShimmerVille, it's a town. It's literally like you can pick out an apartment. You can go to the Claire's café. There's a shopping mall. You can get a job as an ear piercer. You can pick out a pet that comes along with you on your journey. So far, we launched at the top of November. We've had about 2.5 million people come to visit it. It has got an 86% approval rating, which is really high. They spend about eight minutes in the game. 

Sarah Rand:        Wow.

Kristin Patrick:    We're really going to connect the digital to the physical. Those pets we think are a linchpin. We're going to create plush that will sell in stores, and then through the loyalty program you can collect points that you can redeem in store or online.

Sarah Rand:        When I think about Claire's, what I think your customers look for is that ability to express themselves and be unique. How do you translate that to ShimmerVille?

Kristin Patrick:    Self-expression is everything. The brand is built on self-expression. There is a, I would say, design language around the brand. For many years it's been purple and the use of photography was really important to the brand, obviously, because the only marketing we used to do was retail signage. We have had to take the essence of the brand and really create a new design language so that you can take it into apparel or to take it into goods for your dorm. That design language that we established is now being used to inform new store design. It was used to inform the design of ShimmerVille. If you go into Roblox and you look at ShimmerVille, it's like, ‘Oh yes, this is Claire's.’ It's the color palette. It's, even the design of the cars that you can drive, it just all feels like it sits together. I think for retail that's the big thing. The connectivity between your retail experience, your e-com platform, going into a game like Roblox, there has to be a core design. Frankly, a lot of it comes from the original store design.

Sarah Rand:        You've mentioned a few minutes ago, you've got partnerships with Walmart and Macy's. How do you make sure that they are representing your brand how you want it to be?

Kristin Patrick:    There's a set of standards that we've developed for the brand. Like I say, I literally am using those to inform what our shop and shops look like in Macy's, Gallery Lafayette, Paris, and Asda, and what it looks like in Walmart. I stay true to that across every single touchpoint, including going into the metaverse. I have to tell you that we were actually slated to launch our game last March and we couldn't get the design right. It did not feel like Claire's, it did not look like Claire's. We actually took the additional time to make sure that what we were building felt like the brand. Every single retail location that we're going into has to have the Claire’s design palette attached to it.

Sarah Rand:        I can appreciate as a marketer, how important it is to make sure that all of your brands are right. But I would expect your customer to be very tuned into if you're getting it wrong. Right?

Kristin Patrick:    Oh my gosh, yes. This is a generation that tells you what they think and mostly through our social feeds, they will tell us. We also have, we've been doing a lot of consumer outreach through the loyalty program. We have that set up, so we're constantly talking to them. But in a wonderful way, they're so opinionated. It's like they're telling you what they want and need. When I first started at the company, we spent a lot of time talking to consumers and they said, ‘Listen, we love Claire's. We actually want it more engrained in our lives. We would love apparel to go along with the accessories.’ They told us that they wanted stuff for their dorms and their bedrooms. They told us they wanted Claire's cafes, which I'm not sure if we're going to go there, although we did put a Claire's cafe in the game and it's really fun. They tell you what they want. I think it's a combination of us staying on top of the trends, picking good product categories that we know are going to be hot. So, it's a little bit of the fortune telling that we do there. But then, just listening to them is really important to us.

Sarah Rand:        For a lot of consumers of that age, they're on Roblox, they're on BeReal, they are finding different homes around Web3 or the internet generally. How are you making sure that you're following them?

Kristin Patrick:    Oh my gosh. Well, I keep saying this, I don't have the luxury of being a second mover in those spaces, right? Because this generation is setting the standard. I am forced to be on the bleeding edge of technology and where everybody's going, which is so risky, particularly as the chief marketing officer of the company. I make mistakes all the time. BeReal is a great example. It's test and learn. It's better to, I think, be a first mover and then sort of refine as you go along.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. 

Kristin Patrick:    But yes, we have to be on, a first mover in those spaces.

Sarah Rand:        How are you measuring whether something is right and you want to stick with it, or whether it deserves the refining?

Kristin Patrick:    Well, it's a combination of brand health, brand building, store traffic, we also obviously measure engagement. The leap into the metaverse was a huge leap off a cliff. Thank God we're landing safely. It's all the tried-and-true metrics that we usually, and we're constantly watching traffic to the website and some things are going to pay the bills. I always swing for the fences and some things we will look at the results and say, ‘OK, this wasn't worth it.’ And then pivot quickly. 

Sarah Rand:        Yeah. I'm going to go back to partnerships for a second because when you talk about swinging for the fences, this is a new thing for Claire's. When you look at the partner potentials out there, what are you looking for in a partner? Why have you chosen the ones that you're with?

Kristin Patrick:    It started with conversations with consumers. One of the things that they told us is that they want more fashion information from us and trend information. So, we've put some of the best stylists in the world around us. We've put some of the best makeup artists, some of the best nail artists around us, and we do these little segments that we're calling C-Studio. It's Claire's studio.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. 

Kristin Patrick:    We are giving fashion and style advice through these stylists. Consumers also told us that they were shopping, obviously when they were shopping in the malls, they're not just going to Claire’s. We did a partnership program with our loyalty program and you could buy something at Claire's and get a discount at Auntie Annie's pretzels, which, like, sits in every mall.

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yep. 

Kristin Patrick:     Or we did something with e.l.f. Cosmetics because it's such an important Gen Z brand. It's a combination of, I think, us seeking out opportunities and asking them what they want.

Sarah Rand:        Can you talk a little bit about trend-wise, what you think the Zalphas want these days?

Kristin Patrick:    It’s so interesting because I feel like trend watching has gotten so much more complicated than it was in the past. A lot of trends spring up on TikTok now. 

Sarah Rand:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>. 

Kristin Patrick:    I always had this theory about relevancy and steeping your brand in culture. The trends used to start with the art world. They would trickle down to the fashion world, the entertainment industry would pick up on it and then it would kind of become a mass thing. With TikTok, it's creating its own set of trends. Because this generation is so steeped in that, you have to be aware of everything that's going on. We have analytics, consumer insights and trend watching. I think it's the thread that goes between all of those things that you have to be super savvy on and constant feedback loops with your specific customer to find out what they're thinking and feeling. It isn't just like coming from one place, it's coming from many places now that's evolved over the last couple of years.

Sarah Rand:        How do you balance seeing the trees from the forest, being able to react to a TikTok that is taking off today, but also you have to have a multi-year plan for your team? 

Kristin Patrick:    <laugh> That in some sense is where the gut instinct comes in. That's where the magic and the secret sauce is. I think it's a combination of our designers and our merchants. I have to say Claire's has been pretty good at spotting trends over the years. Back in the day, they really created JoJo Siwa’s career. One of the things that's selling really well in our stores is product linked gamers. That was neat too. It just validated as we were getting into Roblox, that that is something that our consumer's interested in. Listen, if anybody tells you they have the secret quotient to figuring out what the best trend is going to be, I mean, seriously that person is a genius. Because I think it's a combination of watching your customer, reading everything that you can get your hands on, watching TikTok and making some good old gut decisions. 

Sarah Rand:        As we wrap, we do have a number of students who listen to our podcast because they're interested in retail and we look forward to welcoming them into the industry someday. Do you have career advice for them?

Kristin Patrick:    It's an interesting question. I have a Gen Z daughter who is trying to figure out her major in college and just trust your gut. I actually keep a post-it note on my computer that says, ‘trust your gut.’ Because I think sometimes we doubt ourselves and we don't listen to that inner voice. I feel like that's made all the difference in my career. Even for, if you're trying to figure out your major as a student, listen to your heart and your gut. 

Sarah Rand:        I Think we should end on that very strong advice. Kristin Patrick, it has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for joining us.

Kristin Patrick:    Thank you so much for having me.

Sarah Rand:        Thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at I'm Sarah Rand, this is Retail Gets Real. Thanks for listening.

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