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The Drapers Interview: Johnnie Boden of Boden

With a major rollout of own retail on the cards for 2016, Boden has its sights set on becoming a truly multichannel business in what will be its 25th anniversary year.


Brand founder Johnnie Boden and global brand director Penny Herriman

Hear the name Boden House and you might picture a country mansion filled with quirky, brightly coloured décor reflective of the quintessentially British Boden style. The reality, however, is slightly different. Brand headquarters is a 90,000 sq ft office block in north Acton, west London, outside which a tongue-in-cheek sign reads: “Ugly building. Nice clothes.”

As this disclaimer says, do not let appearances deceive you. While the office block might look decrepit, the retail strategies being formulated inside are as ambitious and forward-thinking as they come.

These strategies are being spearheaded by Johnnie Boden, the charismatic company founder and brand namesake. In the past year alone, Boden has made several high-profile additions to his team to support his new multichannel approach.

In September, former Burberry senior manager of business intelligence data Ana Machado da Silva was appointed to head of ecommerce, while former American Eagle vice-president and general merchandise manager Matthew Hilgeman joined as product director in June.

Financially, the business has strengthened. The latest results show that, for the year to December 31 2014, profits grew 31% to £32m and sales rose 1% to £280.7m. With steady foundations to rely on, Boden is ready to embark on its next adventure.

Physical presence

In 2016 the brand is planning a bricks-and-mortar retail rollout, starting in the UK and extending soon after to the US, its second biggest market. While the number of UK stores and locations are undecided, Boden sees potential over time for 30 UK stores, which will start within the M25 in close proximity to the head office.

Between gulps of tea, Boden explains in his friendly and irreverent manner that aside from being the brand’s 25th anniversary year, 2016 is the right time for the rollout because the company is serious about growth.

“We want to attract more customers quickly so, without changing our business model to an Asos-type approach with a massive range incorporating other brands, growing retail is the obvious next step.

We’d like to phase out the catalogue because we’d make lots more money, but we’re not going to

“Our ambition is to become a multichannel business and therefore retail represents a significant opportunity for us, but we will be taking it slowly to start with. Whereas there are arguments that when you open a shop where you have existing customers all you do is transfer their spend, the multichannel customer actually spends more. They go into the shop and try more things on, even though they might then buy online.”

Sat beside Boden, global brand director Penny Herriman agrees that to attract new customers the business needs to diversify: “Customer shopping habits have changed and we need to be where our target 35- to 50-year-old female customer is, which is online, on social media and on the high street.”

While this retail rollout is not Boden’s first foray into bricks-and-mortar (it opened a 4,500 sq ft store in Hanger Lane, west London, in 2004), it is the first fully co-ordinated strategy. The new stores will focus on providing a multichannel experience and, while unwilling to reveal the type of technology that will appear in-store, Herriman believes the process will be easier because Boden doesn’t have a retail legacy to contend with.

“Unlike our competitors, who are busy offloading their duff sites or upgrading their systems, we’re starting from scratch. Still, we’ve got to be smart about picking what will work for us now and in the next five years. We don’t want gimmicky stuff, just technology that will make our customers lives easier.”

Unlike our competitors, who are busy offloading their duff sites or upgrading their systems, we’re starting from scratch

Global brand director Penny Herriman

Across the stores the product split between womenswear, menswear and kidswear will depend on the size of the location. While a flagship would present the complete offering, a smaller store is more likely to focus on womenswear.

Boden womenswear autumn 15

Boden womenswear autumn 15

The fact that Boden has waited 25 years for a full retail rollout is a sign of strength says analyst Richard Hyman. “Boden is a successful business with a real understanding of what its customer wants. If they had started opening stores 20 years ago, it’s almost certain they’d have too many, like the vast majority of retailers.

“As Boden’s core market lives within the M25, to start there is sensible. It’s a big financial commitment and if they choose the right locations I’m sure in time they will undoubtedly open across the rest of the country.”

Ben Haywood, director of contemporary womenswear brand Lily & Me, which occupies a similar space in the market to Boden, agrees that the retail move is a good strategy. “It’s great news for the industry as a whole that Boden has decided to take a physical high street presence. Its brand awareness is strong enough to succeed and can only strengthen the lifestyle sector in general. Moving to the US is also good, as raising awareness of British brands serves all of us.”

Boden sees retail playing a big part in the US, where it says it is the second-biggest selling British brand behind Burberry and ahead of Topshop in third. In the half-year to June 2015, Boden saw a 13% increase in new US customers but it refuses to break down how big an element of overall business it represents.

“We probably have a bigger opportunity in the US because of lack of brand awareness and because retail space is cheaper,” says Boden. “In America there could be the opportunity for 150 stores.”

Making our customers excited about our product is always at the forefront of my mind

While decisions on the west or east coast are still being mulled over, Boden is particularly popular in Boston, New York, California and Texas, areas where people travel internationally or have a larger disposable income. While Boden has been present in the US market since 2002, over the past five years the brand’s British identity has really caught on through social media drives, in particular Pinterest campaigns.

No-go areas

Stores in other international markets, such as France and Germany, are a long way off, according to Boden, as is UK wholesale.

“Wholesale is something we would consider, but the priority is retail. Once we have worked out how we want to translate our brand in a store environment, wholesale would be more appealing.”

The retail arm is intended to enhance the catalogue and online business, not replace it. However, Boden admits that in an ideal world he would axe the catalogues. “We’d like to phase out the catalogue because we’d make lots more money, but we’re not going to because it’s a hugely important part of the brand,” he says with a smile.

While 98% of Boden’s sales are online, 50% of traffic comes from consumers receiving the catalogue. Globally, six million copies are sent out every month, featuring new product. “The catalogue is our biggest traffic driver to the site and our richest brand experience. We would be mad to walk away from it,” Herriman adds.

In America there could be the opportunity for 150 stores

Competitor White Stuff’s cross channel marketing director Julian Baker agrees that maintaining a catalogue offer is relevant for brands like Boden. “There is no doubt that customers will access brands from many different touch points, whether that be shops, ecommerce, mobile or social media. Even so, we still believe there is a role for relevant, inspiring direct mail, or ‘maglogues’ as we call them, to engage and entertain customers, further deepening their relationship with the brand.”

In July, Boden launched a digitally shoppable catalogue app, which allows customers to flip through the entire catalogue, mark items they like and forward them to a friend. The customer is then taken to their basket on the main website to transact. The shoppable catalogue now generates 2% of online orders, which Boden is looking to grow as awareness of the app improves.  

Online the desire is to make the brand experience as rich as possible, using relevant editorial and personalisation. As segmentation has become more sophisticated, Boden has identified a group of UK shoppers into the latest trends who receive a dedicated trend edit via email. Personalised emails based on previous purchase behaviour, offering suggestions of similar product, also help drive traffic to the site.  

First launched in 1999, the website is constantly being updated. The team has found, for instance, that engaging customers with emotionally driven product descriptions helps to drive sales because they help shoppers feel more confident in their choice of product. Boden also sees a strong response to video content, which it has used to broaden its storytelling. The team is currently working on shoppable videos, explaining product features and benefits.

In the past the brand didn’t evolve as much as it should have done and our customer evolved quicker

Boden experimented with a homepage takeover to coincide with the launch of its ‘New British’ rebrand in July, using bold autumn 15 campaign images to promote the company’s new image. A year and a half in the planning, the rebrand was intended to reposition Boden as a fashion-focused label.

“In the past the brand didn’t evolve as much as it should have done and our customer evolved quicker. She is more fashion-focused than she ever has been, seeking out fashionable yet flattering clothes that make her look lovely and feel confident. We realised we had to refresh our offering. That’s where New British comes in,” Boden explains. “We wanted to be braver and more ambitious in our style, without losing our boldness, warmth and wit. Part of the appeal of our Icons campaign was around saying to consumers ‘Look, we’ve changed.’”

Boden womenswear autumn 15

Boden womenswear autumn 15

Launched on September 22, the limited-edition Icons collection spans 17 styles, ranging from wide-leg denim crop trousers at £69 to a moss green parka at £399. The premium, trend-led collection was designed to “disrupt the market” and get customers talking about Boden again. While Icons will be repeated for spring 16 as a limited-edition range, the focus remains on improving the mainline collection.

“We want to give our customers fantastic product in the main range so while Icons is special, the important thing is to make the main range amazing,” says Boden. “Making our customers excited about our product is always at the forefront of my mind.”

Diffusion lines

Johnnie Boden has been focused on serving his customer since he launched his initially menswear-focused label in 1991. A year later, he added womenswear, which now represents 65% of the business. The brand branched out into kidswear with Mini Boden (one and a half to 12 years) in 1996, followed by Baby Boden in 2007 and Johnnie B (nine to 16 years) in 2010. Combined, the three kidswear ranges account for 30% of trade, with menswear making up the remaining 5%.

“It’s very much our intention to look at our menswear and keep it in line with the developments in womenswear,” says Herriman. “We’ve got 1.5 million active female customers, most of whom have husbands or partners, so even if they put one item in their basket for their husband that’s good.”

The competitive landscape is so much tougher than it was 10 years ago

The womenswear focus for autumn 15 (ranging from £12 to £350) borrows from the boys, with its focus on a relaxed boyfriend shirt (£59). For the menswear collection (£17 to £199), Boden is backing a British wool overcoat (£199) and chunky Fair Isle jumper (£85). In kidswear (£8 to £76), a girl’s glitter Chelsea Boot (£58) and a boy’s duffle coat (£65) are expected to be popular items.

Looking back over the past 25 years, Boden acknowledges that business has got tougher.

“When you set up a business you think it’s going to get easier as you get older, but in fact it doesn’t. The competitive landscape is so much tougher than it was 10 years ago, with very good operators at the value end and design becoming harder to get ahead on as ideas are so quickly transmitted across the world.

“Yet, despite the challenges this is still a fantastic industry and the international opportunities have given us great hope for the future.”

It appears that 2016 will be a big year for Boden, with anniversary celebrations, the launch of own retail and an office move in the pipeline to a new Boden House, in an undisclosed location, for all 600 staff. Built up over two decades, Boden has the brand loyalty to tough it out on the high street with competitors like M&S and Next, working in tandem with a strong ecommerce platform and a long-established catalogue business as part of a true multichannel strategy.  

Readers' comments (1)

  • This will further damage M&S. Boden will enjoy more custom from the target consumer M&S crave.

    Lots of potential for Boden and plans for the U.S. sound exciting.

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