After talking about it for 19 years, Joe Browns founder Simon Brown has opened the mail order and online business’s first store. He invites Drapers in for a look around
Standing in the doorway of the first Joe Browns store, founder and managing director Simon Brown is visibly elated to see his boho-chic mens- and womenswear, footwear and accessories brand in a bricks-and-mortar environment.
“We agonised over it for so long,” says Brown when we meet at the store, which opened in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre on 2 November. “Over the past 19 years, we have discussed stores at every board meeting.”
Brown established the Leeds-based business in 1998 as a lifestyle catalogue for men. A year later he switched its primary focus to womenswear and launched a transactional website. Wholesale partnerships followed with Shop Direct, N Brown Group, Debenhams and television shopping channel QVC, among others, as well as independent retailers. Mail order still operates but, today, 90% of sales come from online. However, for Brown, bricks-and-mortar has always been “the missing part of the jigsaw”.
Without Derek [Lovelock], I don’t think we would’ve gone into [bricks and mortar]
The wheels were set in motion when former Aurora Fashions chairman Derek Lovelock became involved with the business at the end of last year. He joined as non-executive chairman in March.
“Without Derek, I don’t think we would’ve gone into [bricks and mortar],” Brown admits, citing Lovelock’s industry contacts and experience. “He’s an expert, so it seemed like the right time to do it.”
The business consulted with property group British Land and design agency Dalziel & Pow before deciding on the 4,000 sq ft unit at Meadowhall, which has annual footfall of 24 million, and is due to be augmented by a £300m leisure extension in 2021.
The opportunity to interact with shoppers was a key part of the store’s appeal, says Brown: “We’re going to learn a lot about the customer and the product – why they buy it, why they don’t. The store will raise the bar for the whole business.”
Despite the additional costs of physical stores – rents, business rates, staff salaries, utilities and so on – Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at Mintel, believes the launch is a shrewd decision and will help Joe Browns to engage older customers: “Given that almost half of women struggle to find clothes that fit them well, and older women in particular are not confident about which clothes best suit their size and shape, opening a store will appeal to this older demographic [and allow] them to try clothes on before buying them,” she notes.
If the store is a success, Brown says he will consider expansion, and possibly concessions: “All the excitement of opening makes me want to open another, but we’ve got to get this one singing first.”
Brown started Joe Browns after working for 17 years in his family clothing business, HE & FJ Brown, which manufactured menswear for retailers such as Next, Topman, Jigsaw, BHS and C&A. It closed in 2007.
The inspiration for a mail-order brand struck him when he was sitting in a beachside pub in Wales.
“I saw this group of twentysomethings in the corner with salty hair, bangles and cut-off shorts, just having a whale of a time,” he recalls. “They were all so happy and carefree. I looked at them and thought, if I could bottle up [what they were] exuding and create a brand out of that, then that’s what I was going to do.”
They say paper is dead and the future is digital, but for us it’s still very much alive and kicking.
He started with a team of three in a small office in Farsley, West Yorkshire. At first, the catalogues offered motorcycling and parachuting activity days, as well as menswear.
“They were just things I was personally interested in,” laughs Brown. He changed tack about a year later, when four pages dedicated to women’s casualwear yielded more promising results than activities. They were eventually phased out in early 2013.
The business now has 1.2 million customers who place an estimated average of 2,500 orders per day across its channels – digital, catalogue and in stores. Most orders are now online, but the team continues to send out 44 million catalogues in the UK every year.
Mail order is “still very much our business”: “They say paper is dead and the future is digital, but for us it’s still very much alive and kicking. Online might be the preferred way to shop but what we do is fuelled by visual stimulation, and our catalogues are a big part of that. Paper is where we started and it’ll always be important.”
Joe Browns’ clothing is designed in house or by freelancers working exclusively with the business. It is sourced from India, Turkey, China and South Korea, and aimed at shoppers aged 25 and upwards of “all shapes and sizes”.
This stems from Brown’s desire to create an accessible brand, having been excluded in his youth from playing football in the playground: “The one thing I hate is exclusiveness. We’ve all been excluded from things – it’s a wretched feeling. So it’s important for the brand to be inclusive.”
Offering sizes 8 to 18 for women and S to XXL for men, its products are well made and appeal to the quirkier, free-spirited side of its customers, who tend towards a more mature demographic. Retail prices for autumn 17 range from £24.95 for a shrug to £220 for a men’s leather jacket.
Joe Browns at a glance
- Founded: 1998
- Turnover in the year to 30 June 2016: £28.1m
- EBITDA in the year to 30 June 2016: £5m
- Staff: 140 employees across its store, Leeds HQ and warehouses
- Sourcing destinations: India, Turkey, China and South Korea
The bold patterns and outdoorsy colours of its products have clearly fed into the Meadowhall store’s design – although compact, it makes an impression. Life-sized neon pink rabbit ornaments sit on vintage-style tables alongside accessories and potted plants, while stuffed pheasants perch on shelves.
N Brown Group began stocking Joe Browns womenswear in 2007 before expanding – a kidswear deal was finalised this February. Joe Browns can now be found on Simply Be, Jacamo and JD Williams.
“Simon has a real drive and passion for the brand,” says N Brown’s product director, Ralph Tucker. “His attention to detail is second to none, and he’s always open to evolving and adapting the product to suit our customer base. He’s a great character to work with, one of the best in the industry.”
Similarly, Lovelock describes working with Brown as “fun”: “He brings this amazing energy to every-thing he does. I wanted to join Joe Browns after meeting Simon and, for me, working with a team that I really enjoy [spending time with] is important.
“His brand is unique, [and] there are very few unique brands out there. And Simon wants to learn and interact – to me, that’s worthwhile.”
Joe Browns has enjoyed a steady rise in sales and profits in recent years. Financial accounts published in March show EBITDA leapt by 25% to £5m in the year to 30 June 2016, as turnover grew 7.7% year on year to £28.1m. Brown predicts this trajectory will continue. He says direct-to-consumer sales climbed by 23% year on year in the 12 months to June 2017, while EBITDA rose by another £1m. Meanwhile, sales to its 250 independent stockists in the UK and Ireland have risen by 30% in the last year.
Womenswear makes up the bulk of sales (78.5%), although there are small amounts of menswear (11.8%), footwear (7.5%) and accessories (2.3%). Other categories are sold in partnerships, such as childrenswear with N Brown Group and plus-size with Simply Be. A more recent UK partnership is with Lipsy, to further Joe Browns’ reach in younger markets. It sells capsule women’s, men’s and footwear collections through lipsy.co.uk and the website of its parent company, Next.
If you’re waiting for the perfect moment to do something, you’ll come and go so fast
More wholesale partnerships are in the pipeline, domestically and abroad. Brown has identified opportunities in markets such as the Middle East, as well as popular shipping destinations including Ireland, Germany, the US, the Netherlands and Australia. Meanwhile, Joe Browns has submitted plans to expand its Leeds-based warehouse operations – currently spanning a combined 110,000 sq ft – by “around an acre” (44,000 sq ft).
Although it is now enjoying solid growth, Brown says there have been “many bumps along the way”. He points to the 2011-14 period, in which profits halved, even though the business had posted record rises during the years of recession between 2008 and 2011. This led to a reshuffle in its marketing and merchandising functions, but profits did not bounce back until the 2014/15 financial year.
“We didn’t have the right calibre of people to run the size of the business we’d become,” Brown explains. “It took us a couple of bumpy years [before] we came out of that.”
His advice to entrepreneurs is to accept that “life isn’t linear”. It is the first lesson he taught his two children: Georgie, 29 and expecting Brown’s first grandchild, and Oliver, 28. Brown, 57, lives with his wife, Mandie, in Menston, a village in West Yorkshire.
“The first lesson they learned is there’ll be bumps along the way, and that’s just the way life is. You shouldn’t be afraid of choppy waters,” says Brown.
And while timing is important, he has learned not to hesitate with ideas for too long: “A lot of people end up wishing they’d done this or that, but if you’re waiting for the perfect moment to do something, you’ll come and go so fast. There’s never a perfect time – what you have to do is just work jolly hard and [bring] a point of difference.”
Joe Browns’ lively retail offering and shopfit will engage new and existing customers alike, particularly within the more mature market. Teamed with its strong financial performance during a challenging time for retailers, further bricks-and-mortar expansion seems inevitable.