Retail Insights

by Houman Salem

Successful retailing is not only about product, price and customer service. Today, shoppers are more sophisticated and will spend extra time looking for the best deal. In an effort to stay competitive, retailers must strive to sell an overall retail-shopping concept that creates memorable experiences.

I have spent the past seven years of my career on the manufacturing side of the industry running reputable companies and never really thought about venturing off into the retail side of the business. However, opportunity, timing, and the entrepreneurial drive influenced me to make a massive career shift.

“Successful retailers will need to go beyond the price attribute and focus on retail concepts that communicate directly and indirectly with consumers,” – Houman Salem

From 2008 to most of 2009, I was the head of a division of a large corporation in the costume industry in New York. Anyone who has ever lived or visited New York will tell you that the enormous degree of available activities can be overwhelming. You can spend three life times in the City and still not see and do all that New York has to offer. However, during my time in New York I never went to the Guggenheim Museum, never saw a Broadway show, never visited the Statue of Liberty, never went to the top of the Empire State building, and didn’t do a lot of the things that most people talk about. Instead, I spent almost all my free time exploring some of the world’s best boutique stores in Soho.


Now, I am not a chronic shopper, but for some reason I had developed a fascination and an obsession with these boutiques. Each store had such a unique personality, a well-defined identity that was reinforced by the interior design and furniture, the scent, the music, the lighting, and ultimately the staff. As though the actual products being sold were secondary to this environment.

I spent countless hours at the John Varvatos store on Spring Street, where vintage meets rebellious fused with classic rock. Spend just a little bit of time in this store and you walk out with an unexplainable urge to get a tattoo. This is a perfect example of a retail store that doesn’t only sell a product, but does a great job of selling an overall retail story.

Another one of my favorite stores was a bath and beauty store called Sabon, also on Spring Street. This store carries bricks of soap and sells them by the pound. They actually cut and weigh the soap on a scale and package it for you as though you were the only customer they had all week. That being said, every time I walked into Sabon the place was jam-packed. What was most intriguing was that on every visit, the sales person insists on washing your hands. They walk you over to a set of large stone sinks and actually wash your hands as they explain, in detail, the features and benefits of the soap they are using. What Sabon was actually selling was the concept that they are the experts in this particular product category, and as consumers we often require expert advise.

Then there was my favorite of all stores, La Perla on Greene Street. I spent a considerable amount of time at this store over the period of weeks and had gotten to know the staff very well. La Perla is considered the retail gold standard for lingerie, where a bra and panty set will cost upwards of $700. What is unique about La Perla is that customers are not allowed to touch the products on display, and an experienced La Perla consumer is mindful of this procedure. Instead, a salesperson will take care of your every need as though she was your personal assistant. La Perla’s retail concept is centered on luxury and exclusivity.

Every weekend I would gravitate toward Soho and continue to visit a variety of boutiques, especially the lingerie stores such as Kiki de Montparnase, Agent Provocateur, and Le Petit Coquette. I did not realize it at the time, but what I was doing was processing information, gathering data, and laying down the foundation for what would become Chelsea Manor.

When I actually needed to go shopping I would visit the Queens Center mall in Queens or the Roosevelt Field mall in Long Island. However, unlike the boutiques in Soho, shopping in these malls seemed more like a chore and something one needs to get out of the way. In my opinion, the large national chain stores in the malls lack character. The sales staffs often times are too intrusive as the bombard you at the door with all the discounts, promotions, and sales events, then proceed to watch your every move as you work your way throughout the store. In this environment, only the low-price leader will survive, as there is rarely any other compelling reason to visit such stores other than price.


Successful retailers will need to go beyond the price attribute and focus on retail concepts that communicate directly and indirectly with consumers. In other words, all prices being equal among us (as shoppers will always look for a better deal), the retailer that does a better job of selling a concept or story will have a stronger competitive advantage. It was on one of my visits to the mall that I began to think aggressively about why the national chains seem so homogenized. What are the strategic challenges they face when discussing branding and differentiation? What would it take to make mall shopping more enjoyable? During this particular visit, Chelsea Manor was born with four simple words that grazed my mind and changed the course of my career – “Boutique for the Masses.”

Chelsea Manor’s flagship store opened in December of 2009 with the retail concept that brings the boutique shopping experience (like those I found in Soho) to consumers by focusing its product mix on “entry-level-luxury” products at affordable price points. For most consumers, shopping at boutiques in the fashion capitals of the world can be geographically and/or financially out of reach. Chelsea Manor is the introductory point to boutique retail shopping for the everyday consumers.

To reinforce the boutique-style shopping concept, I chose to create a retail environment that explores the darker and more mysterious side of intimacy. The flagship store located at Westfield Fashion Square (a mall in Sherman Oaks, CA) is characterized as modern gothic featuring dark wood floors, furniture, and fixtures, a dominant black crystal chandelier in the center of the store, Persian rugs, brushed cast iron racks and displays, and featuring an eclectic mix sensual music from around the world. The product mix further strengths the concepts by offering inspired fashion lingerie, steel boned corsets, bra and panty sets, silk robes, masquerade-style facemasks, and a variety of romantic gifts.

A typical customer may spend upwards of two hours in the fitting room trying on a variety of outfits. In such cases, consumers are offered wine, tea, coffee, or other refreshments to enhance their shopping experience. Chelsea Manor also offers special orders for hard to find products and sizes, and also provides free home delivery for shoppers who live within 10 miles of the store. To date, our greatest source of business has been word-of-mouth.

Houman Salem is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Salem Holdings Company, and is the driving force behind each of its subsidiary companies (including Chelsea Manor). In 2008, Mr. Salem founded and served as the Managing Director of Delicious Sexywear, a division of Rubie’s Costume Company (the world’s largest designer and manufacturer of Halloween costumes with annual revenues over $400 million).

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