Daffy’s CEO enjoys creative niche

Caryn Lerner is a retail CEO who understands the connection between salesmanship and showmanship. She’s now playing a leading role at Secaucus-based Daffy’s.

Lerner was hired in March to steer the chain of 18 off-price stores founded 50 years ago in Elizabeth as Daffy Dan’s discount store. She is the first person outside the founding family to lead the company. Last month she presided over a 50th birthday party for the chain that included a bit of showmanship that would have pleased Daffy’s founder, the late Irving Shulman — models walking the runway on a giant cake.

In college, Lerner trained to be an actress, but fell in love with retail after a temporary Christmas job at Bloomingdale’s. She’s had executive positions at companies ranging from shopping network QVC to fashion powerhouses Barneys and Escada USA. Before joining Daffy’s, she was CEO of Holt Renfrew, an upscale department store chain based in Canada.

Chief executive officer, Daffy’s Inc.

Caryn LernerShe heads Daffy’s, an off-price retail chain founded in New Jersey in 1961 and now based in Secaucus. The chain has 18 stores in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.

Her background: Before joining Daffy’s at the beginning of the year, she was CEO of Holt Renfrew, a luxury department store chain in Canada, from 2005 to 2010. She also was president and chief marketing officer of luxury clothing brand Escada (USA) Inc. and held executive positions at QVC, Jones New York, Barneys and Bloomingdale’s. She got her start in retail in the executive training program at Bloomingdale’s, after graduating from New York University with a degree in theater.

Lerner, 54, has a son and daughter in college, and lives in Manhattan and Connecticut. (Interview edited and condensed.)

Q. You went to NYU — are you from around here?

I was born in Dallas and grew up in Rochester. I started at Vassar College but my dream at 18 was to be a Broadway star and I transferred to NYU to be a part of their acting program, because I had the opportunity to study with Lee Strasberg. So I have a BFA in theater, which we could debate for days on whether that serves me well in this industry.

Q. Lots of people in retail do seem to have backgrounds in theater.

What I love about this industry is there’s an opportunity in any aspect of the business to be creative. There are not a lot of businesses where you get the opportunity every day to use your right brain and your left brain. The fashion industry is built on emotion, it’s built on passion and it’s built on ‘I think and I feel.’ Yet we’re a business, so we have to deliver results and we have to grow and we have to be profitable and all those good things. So there’s a wonderful mix of being creative and being realistic and practical.

Q. What was your first job in retail?

The theater community didn’t embrace me as much as I had hoped, and I decided to go back to school. I applied to law schools and while I was waiting to hear, my father, who was in the neckwear and men’s accessory business, said, ‘You need to be doing something.’ He got me an interview at Bloomingdale’s and they hired me as temporary Christmas help in the dress department. Bloomingdale’s offered me a full-time position after Christmas on the executive training squad and I had fallen in love with the business during the six weeks I was there — the pace, the people, the mix of intuition and business. I accepted without hesitation and turned down Yale and NYU law schools to stay schlepping dresses and be locked in a stockroom for the rest of my life.

Q. What is Daffy’s niche? There are a lot more people in the off-price segment than in the early days of Daffy’s.

Daffy’s occupies a unique niche and that is part of the strategy that we’re developing here. Daffy’s is known for fashion, and Daffy’s is known for incredible value. There aren’t a lot of off-price retailers out there today in the bricks-and-mortar world known for unique brands and being on fashion and on trend. We have a New York attitude. Our voice, our communication with our customers, how we approach our stores, all of our marketing has a very different language than any of the competition out there.

Q. Can you see that New York voice going beyond the New York area?

Absolutely. I don’t think it just plays in New Jersey and New York. I think it can play in other areas. That’s longer term for us. We have no plans in place for national expansion, but we dream about it and we talk about it as something further down the road.

Q. Daffy’s usually is described as “profitable with sales of about $160 million.” Is that still accurate?

Yes. But our goal is to begin to be able to tell you that number is going up. We’re sharpening our pencils and our strategies to really get some more traction on the top line.

Q. Daffy’s is known for the treasure hunt, finding the one-of-the-kind item, rather than made-for-off-price merchandise. Are you going to stick with that strategy?

Absolutely. It’s another differentiator for us, from all the competition. We are true off-price retailers. We buy inventory that was in the full-price channel. It either was in stores or manufacturers just overproduced. We aren’t making goods, attaching a fictitious retail price to it, and discounting from there. That is very important to the customer.

Q. Do you consider yourself a fashionista? How do you shop?

I don’t know — a fashionista? I certainly pay attention to trends and fashion. I’ve learned a long time ago to interpret those trends so that they’re appropriate for me. And I want to be comfortable. I don’t want to be a victim of fashion. So I have a pretty eclectic taste and I’ll mix and match. I actually quite enjoy shopping in our stores, because it’s sort of how I like to put myself together. I like to be a little unpredictable and a little funky at times, if I can be.

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