- Isabella Griffiths |
London - Maternity and children’s specialist JoJo Maman Bebé is one of the most successful multi-channel retailers in the UK, apparently bucking the downward economic trend with a consistently strong performance year after year. In its last financial results for the 12 months to 30 June 2017, posted in April this year, the company recorded a 20 percent rise in revenues to 57.5 million pounds and a 14.5 percent increase in like-for-like sales, with a profit jump from 3.6 million pounds the previous year to 3.9 million pounds. Online sales in particular saw a steep rise of 39.8 percent to 18.2 million pounds, up 5.9 million pounds, proving a key growth area for the business, which was launched in 1993 by founder and CEO Laura Tenison.
JoJo Maman Bebé was conceived during Tenison’s extended hospital stay following a near-fatal car crash in France, where she had been doing up and selling properties. It was there that she decided to return to the UK and launch a range of Breton influenced, quirky maternity and kids fashion via mail order. 25 years on, and the company has become one of the most popular brands in the maternity and baby-sector and is sold in 46 countries around the world, with further expansion in new territories, most recently the US. FashionUnited caught up with Tenison over the phone to find out what drives the success and growth of the retailer and where she sees the business moving forward.
You seem to be one of the few high street brands who are flourishing amidst a difficult economic climate and challenging market conditions. What’s your secret?
I think our main point of difference is that we are not a traditional fashion retailer, we are a maternity and baby specialist and we have carved our own niche for innovative design and the very best products in that market, from pregnancy to pre-school. We offer our customers a lot of choice and reliable, high quality at affordable, mid-market prices, but with a more high-end feel. For instance, we have the best children’s rainwear, the best nursing bras and we make extremely good socks, which is not so well known. We invest a lot in innovation, product and design and we have a USP that other high street businesses would envy. We have been fortunate that we have grown by 20 percent year on year ever since we launched, and we are continuing this trajectory. That said, our growth has been organic and as a company we are very cautious. We still have low overheads and are generally quite a lean operation with little excess stock. We buy very tight, which means we don’t need to discount. Our customers know that once it’s gone, it’s gone, which encourages them to buy at full price and not wait around for sales, which is why we are able to maintain high margins.
How is your business structured?
We currently have 90 stores in the UK and mainland Ireland, plus four new stores in the US, which we are trialling at the moment, and a further eight planned openings in the UK over the next 12 months. E-commerce accounts for about 35 percent of our business and is our fastest growing channel, while wholesale makes up around 10 percent; we wholesale mostly in new markets where we want to build the brand. We started as a mail-order catalogue and after ten years we ventured into bricks and mortar with our first store. I think this is why we look at retail slightly differently than other traditional operators who have stores first and then decide they need a digital element - you analyse stock turn, newness in store, ROI on marketing and all those factors differently. We are a lot more data-driven and analytical about the customer journey.
Your e-commerce arm has grown rapidly and consistently. How does this complement your retail operation?
E-commerce sales have been very strong for us indeed for the last few years and it works very well alongside our stores, which are still proving to be a very cost-effective customer recruitment vehicle. I would say we have quite a holistic view of retail and online and offline are part of one brand proposition. Winning new customers online is a particularly expensive undertaking, and we find that our stores are still a great route to market; they help raise brand awareness and we see a lot of conversion from our bricks and mortar stores to online. Our most successful product areas online are our bread & butter basics, things like rain wellies and products that our customers have often bought in-store, tried, tested and loved and are now buying the next size up. Other areas, things like clothing, work better in-store, so both areas complement each other.
You mentioned your most recent US expansion. What’s the story there?
The US has been a strong market for us for a while now, we are represented there through 220 independent boutiques as well as a few specialist online stores, and our own US e-commerce site has grown by 339 per cent over the past two years. So opening stores and replicating our model from the UK into the US seems like the logical next step. This spring we opened four stores on the East Coast in Westport, CT; Hoboken, NJ; Greenwich, CT and Montclair, NJ and we’re currently trialling them for approximately six months and then plan to roll out further stores across the US. The American market offers huge opportunities for us, we have no sizing issue, no seasonal problems and virtually no competition. So we’re hoping to build on this going forward.
You are a passionate advocate of the high street, not least demonstrated by JoJo Maman Bebé’s strong presence of bricks and mortar stores. There is a lot of talk about the death of the high street – do you agree?
No, absolutely not. I really believe that there is a place for the high street and it’s very sad to witness the demise of so many great towns. Our retail business is built on a strong high street presence and you will never see us popping up in a shopping centre. In my view the rise of out of town retail parks is one of the big fall outs from the digital age, what I call the ‘Amazon-Effect’. I for one believe that it’s part of our corporate social responsibility to help regenerate high streets and help them thrive again. It’s about retailers taking action, it’s about councils taking action and offering things like affordable parking, it’s about landlords being open and encouraging. I’m proud to say that at JoJo we have opened a number of stores recently in areas that had seen exactly this demise, but that we have helped redevelop. Take Edinburgh for instance, we opened a store in Morningside at a time when it was just full of charity shops and coffee chains. We opened there, other companies took note, we spoke to like-minded businesses about joining us, and now it’s slowly seeing real change. We did the same in Sheffield at Fox Valley, which was a pretty awful location to begin with – it’s early days, but we are doing really well and are expecting others to follow as they have in the past in other location. Sometimes you just have to be brave. Retailers have to be brave. We have been brave, we’ve taken risks, and they have paid off. We’ve proven that once someone takes initiative, others will follow.
Do you feel that in this digital age, the retail experience and what consumers want is changing though?
It’s definitely changing; the tide is turning. Shopping in town centres and bricks and mortar stores will become increasingly experiential, it will be about brand experience, events, community, meeting points. We have already started to incorporate more of that into our own store experience by offering things like children’s shoe fittings or maternity bra fittings or in-store events. Consumers want a reason to come into stores, and we are providing that.
What is the biggest challenge for your business at the moment?
Our biggest challenge is similar to that of most other businesses – the current lack of stability and certainty of what the future holds in light of Brexit. We trade a lot internationally, in Germany and Ireland etc. and we want to expand, but where do we invest? Where can we continue to grow? It’s the same with our US business – there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding trade deals there. We’re cautious about investing in international markets. We were just on the cusp of opening 8 stores in Ireland when the Brexit vote hit, which we now put on hold and we’ll wait to see what happens. We will have to spread our risk as much as we can. I’m confident in our domestic market though – we are not a high-end brand but in the mid-market and we have our niche. We will be resilient. In our 25 years we have steered through many a tough time.
Finally, your company prides itself on its ethical principles. You are a Certified B Corporation and in addition to environmental pursuits, you also support a number of charitable projects in the UK and abroad. Why is this so important to you personally?
I have always believed that it is a good practice not to be wasteful and to run the business as sustainably as possible. We are constantly looking at our whole operation and at areas where we can make improvements, whether that’s on an economic level, environmental or as part of our CSR. When we decided to apply to become a Certified B Corporation, we managed to pass the first time, which not many companies achieve. But our business was already so geared towards this. Why is it important to me? I think it goes back to my roots. I grew up in a large family in South Wales where we very much lived by the principle of waste not, want not. I’ve just always been very frugal and I don’t like this wasteful consumerism that we are living in today because it has such lasting, terrible impact on so many levels. We encourage customers to buy less, but buy better. Our company mantra is that we’re about people, not profits – and we actually mean it.
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photo: courtesy of the brand