Boho lifestyle label Joe Browns: From mail-order catalogue to multi-channel player

Leeds based lifestyle label Joe Browns is not only celebrating its 20th anniversary this autumn, but also the first successful year of its debut bricks and mortar store at Sheffield shopping centre Meadowhall, which the company opened in November last year. After almost two decades of “talking about it”, the mail-order, online and wholesale business took the plunge with its first physical retail presence. “It’s the final piece in the Joe Browns jigsaw to becoming a true multi-channel operator”, says founder and managing director Simon Brown when FashionUnited calls for a chat.

It may have been a big step, and even bigger investment (the 4000 sqft shop was kitted out by leading retail design agency Dalziel & Pow), but it has paid off and has become a buzzing retail destination which is also driving the wider business whilst reinforcing the brand identity and USP. According to Brown, a lot of care and attention to even the slightest details has gone into the store to create the best possible retail and customer experience. And buoyed by the success so far, the Sheffield store will become the blueprint for a further roll-out.

“We’ve gone into stores for three reasons: One, our customers always wanted a store. People are coming from all over, as far as Southampton or Plymouth, it’s like a pilgrimage. Secondly, we also wanted to crystallise in a physical way what we were all about and give customers that unique brand experience. And thirdly, we wanted the store to have three key attributes that sum up our brand philosophy. We wanted it to be interesting, intriguing and inspiring. And without wanting to sound like we are too full of ourselves, I think we have achieved that,” he says.

“We are currently looking at the mechanics of retail; where we can perform best and make the most profit. Whether we’ll end up having five big stores or ten small ones, we will see,” says Brown, who credits retail veteran and former chairman of Aurora Fashions, Derek Lovelock, who came on-board last year as non-executive chairman, for pushing the retail expansion of the brand back on top of the company agenda. “He’s a great person to have on our team where retail is concerned. He brings tons of experience to the table, it’s invaluable.”

Lovelock isn’t the only prominent person with a strong industry record to have joined the business. Recent appointments include Andrew Thomson, previously brand director EMEA at Original Penguin, who joined as head of wholesale in July, and as of October, Fiona Brown, former global digital marketing manager at GHD, who has taken the role of head of e-commerce, as well as Rachael Clarkson, who is boosting the ladies buying and design team. Their combined experience will accelerate the business development, no doubt.

Boho lifestyle label Joe Browns: From mail-order catalogue to multi-channel player

Growth phase

If things are tough out there industry and economy-wise, Joe Browns is certainly bucking the downward trend. The company has recorded a 21 per cent year on year increase for the first 18 weeks of the 2018 / 2019 financial year, following a record 2017, and is currently also expanding its warehouse space for the third time to accommodate its expansion – a physical manifestation of its success and growth, having started as a small three-people set-up in the village of Farsley on the outskirts of Leeds, and now taking up a sizeable chunk of estate two minutes from the city centre of Leeds and employing 150 people.

“We are in the middle of a growth phase. It’s a very difficult climate for a lot of people, but we are doing well. I’m not saying that we’re immune to the difficult times; we’re not. We have to focus very hard and work very hard on the things that are true to us and not get distracted by fads and things like that. But it’s much easier when you’re a smaller company like us – although admittedly, we’re not that small any more – as we are more agile than huge corporations,” says Brown. “We come here in the morning, we have a discussion in my office and decide what’s right or wrong for the business, and then we just go ahead and do it. We don’t have layers and layers of people, we don’t have to get anything past anyone else, like banks, shareholders or investors. Sometimes our decisions are great, and sometimes not so great, but we are very fast and flexible and that works for us,” he says.

It’s evident that Brown, who is refreshingly straight-talking and passionate, and his team have a very strong sense of identity, both in terms of their brand positioning and its future direction. He’s particularly proud of the fact that after two decades Joe Browns remains an independent business. “We don’t borrow any money from the banks – at all. We are a totally and utterly debt free business, and the reason we don’t borrow money is because we want to be free. This enables us to be free. We have very strong cash reserves, and that gives us confidence, and it gives us opportunities – to open a store when we want to, to build a new warehouse when we need it, to launch a new, frighteningly expensive website and so on.” He adds: “I’m all over the figures. I love figures. They can’t lie. So as long as we keep on looking at the figures all the time and keep making the right decisions around that, we’ll be ok.”

Boho lifestyle label Joe Browns: From mail-order catalogue to multi-channel player

Expanding distribution channels

Having originally been a mail-order business, the focus has now shifted to e-commerce, as almost all orders come via the brand’s transactional website, although Brown is quick to stress that the catalogue is far from obsolete. “We send out 48 million catalogues per year in the UK. People still like the experience of having the catalogue and actually physically sitting down and taking five minutes to flick through it. It’s the best representation of our brand, it’s colourful and so visually stimulating. It then drives orders to our website. 89 per cent of all our orders come from online and only 6 per cent come from actual postal order. But that doesn’t mean that the catalogue is dead. It drives people to our website, it’s an important marketing tool”, he says.

Wholesale is the third pillar in Joe Browns’ distribution and makes up 45 per cent of the business, with key partners including the likes of N Brown Group, QVC, Freemans, Grattan, Debenhams (online only) and Lipsy, which has opened up the Joe Browns brand to a younger customer base - a “phenomenal success”, according to Brown. In addition, there is a network of around 250 independent boutiques, served by six agents across the UK, as well as a trade show presence at the likes of Pure London. “All three channels are very important. It’s a mix and it’s about getting the balance right between retail, wholesale and e-commerce. We carefully select the people we want to work with and they are true partners who we have built strong relationships with over the years,” says Brown.

A lot of Joe Browns’ popularity is down to its quirky, colourful boho signature style, which has wide appeal, “from 5 to to 55 and beyond”, as Brown puts it. Pitched at mid-market level, the brand offers womenswear and menswear, in addition to a wide range of complementary accessories. As with everything, Brown has a very clear definition of his brand: “Everything we do has to be remarkable. That’s our motto. We want people and our customers to remark on our styles, products and services in a positive way,” he explains. Another key principle of Browns is that he wants his brand to be inclusive. “A lot of other brands have made themselves exclusive, whether that’s on size or price or class. I actually don’t want to be part of that. If you’ve ever been excluded from anything you’ll know what an awful feeling that is. So our brand is available to anybody who has a similar outlook and beliefs to us. We are inclusive,” he elaborates.

Diversifying the product portfolio

The next few months will see Joe Browns’ offering expand further, with the brand’s first foray into homeware, due to launch in March next year. For Brown its seems a natural extension of the label, although he admits he had to be talked round to the idea. “At first, I wasn’t mad on it. We already have so much going on here. But we’re doing it in collaboration with the N Brown Group, who have the expertise and the vision, and their enthusiasm was really infectious. We have great design capabilities and they have great manufacturing capabilities. We already do a huge amount of business with them and have a strong existing relationship,” he says. “So we’ve taken our style and applied that to homeware. There will be diffusers, candles, furniture, wall paper, duvets, cushions, sofas … It’s not because we think we can do it better than anybody else, it’s just that we’re different and our style lends itself to homeware. We should see within weeks of launch whether it will be successful or not, and if it is, then we can launch that all over the world,” he adds.

Boho lifestyle label Joe Browns: From mail-order catalogue to multi-channel player

International push

Brown clearly has global ambitions, not just for homeware, but for the whole Joe Browns portfolio. Last month the brand made its US debut, and Europe is also earmarked for development, though Brown is treading a little more carefully here – at least until Brexit unfolds in March 2019. “Germany is a very good market for us, we are already trading with a key international partner there, Otto, and are doing some very good business with them. There’s two ways for our international expansion, one is direct and one is wholesale. Wholesale is more feasible at the moment, and in terms of Germany we have a great business development manager out there who can crack on with that for us. However, we have to put direct expansion through online and stores on ice for now, until we see what’s going to happen with Brexit. There’s no point investing heavily in a country and then finding out the duties, tariffs and exchange rates won’t make it viable. We’re just going to have to wait and see until March,” he says.

It’s this pragmatic and down-to-earth approach that has stood Brown in good stead over the last 20 years and will continue to inform the business strategy going forward. Did Brown ever predict he would still be here two decades on from launching a small catalogues business from a quaint village in Leeds? He hesitates for a second before answering: “Do you know what? When I set up the business, I wrote on a piece of paper that the aim was to make a few quid and have some fun. We’ve made a few quid and had loads of fun! But I still feel like we’re just setting out. There is still so much we can do. It doesn’t surprise me that we are where we are, but the vision is much bigger than that! We’re still on the journey,” he says.

Photo credit: Joe Browns


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