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The following is a Q&A with Ivy Boehm of Chico's FAS. To learn more about Chico's and its insight communities, watch a recording of the webinar The Human Side of Product Innovation.

In the retail industry, keeping up with consumer trends isn’t optional—it’s necessary to attract new customers and keep a loyal following. In this hyper-competitive environment, the companies that thrive are those that know their shoppers well.

That’s something that the retailer Chico’s FAS is keenly aware of. Since its humble beginnings in 1983, the company has grown from a three-person operation in Sanibel Island, Florida, into the multinational retailer it is today. Throughout the U.S. and Canada alone, the retailer now has over 1,500 boutiques and outlets.

As the company grows, its need for deeper customer understanding also escalates. That’s where Ivy Boehm comes in. As the head of the consumer insights practice at the company, Ivy plays a key role in ensuring that the three brands under Chico’s FAS—Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma—have the necessary customer intelligence they need to compete in their niche.

We recently sat down with Ivy to chat about her career in market research and the importance of shopper engagement. She also talks about how Chico’s uses three branded insight communities to improve its relationship with customers and make better decisions about its products and the end-to-end shopper experience.

Tell us about your career in research. When did you join Chico’s and what do you love about what you do?

I come from a traditional market researcher background and started in the industry over 20 years ago. After working for a research company, I moved to the corporate side of the industry, joining LensCrafters in 1996. After that, I ran my own research agency for a while. I’m now back in the corporate world, having joined Chico’s in 2011.

I’m also very active in the market research arena. I’m a board member at the Marketing Research Association, a trade organization.

What I love about market research is the craft of understanding people. I love learning what people are doing, what inspires them and how brands can serve them better. I get to do that in my job every day.

My group at Chico’s helps the company stay in tune with our customers. Chico’s has five core values. The first one is “Customers First.” The consumer insight group enables the company to do that by listening to our customer and learning who she is and what she’s passionate about. Our team helps Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma understand how our brands serve our customers. The number one question we strive to answer is “how do we keep her top of mind and how can the brand better serve her?”

Working in consumer insights is fascinating. There are many times when we think we know what people are going say. But, from time to time, customers surprise us. That’s what makes my job fun. As insight professionals, it’s our job to explore nuances in consumer behaviors and attitudes and figure out what they mean. Why are we surprised by these insights? Is there something deeper we need to understand?

Our three insight communities—Chat with Chico’s, WHBM Rewards and Soma Undercover—help us tremendously as they allow us to go deeper and learn even more. Our community members are open to having ongoing conversations—something that would be hard to do without an insight community.

Chat with Chico's - innovation strategy lessons from Chico's FAS

That’s an interesting comment about insight communities. From your experience, how do insight communities differ from other methods of getting consumer insight?

Great question. When I joined Chico’s, over 90 percent of research was already being done within our Vision Critical insight communities. So while I came in as a seasoned researcher, I was nevertheless an insight community newbie. I wondered, are we talking to ourselves? Are we making big decisions based on a small set of people who are already passionate about our brands?

I did a lot of discovery and research on research to find out. I talked to people at Vision Critical. I went to my first Customer Intelligence Summit, where I heard what other Vision Critical customers were talking about and how they used their insight communities. To compare the insight we get from our communities with other sources, I ran a study on our insight communities and hired a research company to do the same study with lookalike customers.

As a result, I was astounded how much richer the communication was in our community compared to the lookalike group and the customers that we engaged outside of the community. That surprised me because our insight communities are branded communities. I went in as a traditional researcher thinking our members will have “rose-colored” glasses, and that they’ll just talk about why they love our brands. I was concerned that we wouldn’t hear about the things that we need to fix.

"Our members love our brands, and because of that, they are extremely honest in their feedback—both positive and negative."

But what I found is that our members love our brands, and because of that, they are extremely honest in their feedback—both positive and negative. In many of our activities, we get paragraphs of responses instead of a sentence or two. The insight that we get from our members is in-depth and very useful.

That’s great to hear. You’ve mentioned that Chico’s shoppers surprise you from time to time with their feedback. Could you give a recent example where the insight that you got from your community was different from what you expected?

In the webinar, The Human Side of Product Innovation, I shared a few examples of the business results we’ve seen from our insight community, including a very interesting pant test a few years ago. We sent pants to select members of our insight community and asked them to let us know what they thought. The pants at that time were new in the market; they were ankle lengths, the new silhouette of the season. We didn’t tell members what exactly we were testing, but we asked them to send us pictures of themselves actually wearing the pants.

We discovered that because the pants were new in the market, most of our shoppers weren’t sure how to wear them. Pairing the pants with shoes, for instance, was an issue. Many of our customers didn’t know which pants to wear with this new cropped style. We needed to educate the market about this new trend. We knew that in order to be successful, when we went to market, we had to make sure that our stores, our websites and all of our customer touch points, not only showed the new pants, but also provided suggestions on how to wear them and how to integrate them with our customers’ wardrobe.

We weren’t looking for this information, and it’s something we wouldn’t have discovered if our members weren’t open to sharing photos with us.

It’s interesting that members of your insight communities are so eager to share. What’s your secret to keeping people engaged in your communities?

People are very engaged because we have a genuine relationship with them. We try to reach each person at least once a month or every other month. We keep a two-way dialogue with our members.

Because of their relationship with Chico’s, our members are open to sharing their pictures with us. That would have been impossible if we simply hired a third-party vendor to conduct our research. Our insight communities allow us to engage beyond just the traditional survey.

What’s the best thing about your insight communities?

Control and speed are two big benefits of having an insight community. If another department comes to us and says, “I need to make a decision tomorrow. Could you get more info?” we can quickly engage members, and overnight we’ll have results that could help inform decisions. We have rich communities, and we can pull together a good representative group of people very easily.

Another benefit is being able to integrate the data we get from our insight communities with other sources of customer intelligence. People join our insight communities by invitation, so our member base is tied to a customer relationship management (CRM) database. We’re able to append information on our consumer insights data and see what our customers told us while also analyzing their actual behavior.

How has managing the community influenced your personal career development?

As a corporate researcher, I like that insight communities allow me to get information quickly. We’re living at a time when insight teams need to be able to turn around information with speed and agility. With insight communities, we have an agile platform that gives us information and data that we can be confident about.

I love the study of people. I love learning about our customers, and I treasure the opportunity to interact with them. Our insight communities allow me and my team to do that. More importantly, insight communities allow Chico’s, White House Black Market, and Soma to build authentic relationships with our shoppers.

"With insight communities, we have an agile platform that gives us information and data that we can be confident about."

One of the reasons our members are highly engaged is because we listen. For instance, if someone from our communities tells us that they’ve had a bad experience, someone from the company usually follows up with that customer within 24 hours. When customers give us their answers, they’re sharing their insight with the company; they’re hoping we’ll listen to them. It’s our responsibility to reciprocate and use the feedback they’re sharing with us.

It’s rewarding to have authentic interactions with customers instead of just looking at data.

You’re a seasoned market researcher, so I was was wondering: Where do you think market research is headed?

Interesting question. I was at a conference last year where many people were talking about big data and the role that it plays in consumer insights. That’s a big question if you think about how much information is flowing from so many different places today.

As an industry, consumer insights needs to figure out how to keep up with the way consumers want to share data. People are not going to want to fill out long surveys. They wouldn’t want to have long, drawn out dialogues because that’s not how they live their lives. We have to keep up with how the consumer is living, behaving and adapting to our ever changing world in order to have a real understanding of their lives.

Consumer expectations will continue to evolve. We have to accept that—and welcome it as a challenge.

Final thought

Our thanks to Ivy for sharing her time and knowledge with us! To hear more from Ivy, watch the webinar The Human Side of Product Innovation or watch our customer success video below featuring Chico’s.

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Ellie Hutton

Ellie is passionate about our customers' experience, shining a spotlight on the success of our customers, and bringing the voice of the customer to our business. She’s been with Vision Critical since 2006, in research, marketing, sales enablement, customer success and CX teams. Ellie has over 20 years of experience in research and marketing, partnering with companies across many verticals to build brands, develop products, retain customers, evaluate communications, develop strategy, and facilitate change.
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