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The Drapers Interview: Angela Spindler, N Brown Group

The N Brown boss has drawn up a new template to get the group’s biggest-selling brand - JD Williams - back on track.

Angela Spindler crop

Angela Spindler

I think our proposition is relevant to a broader population than we’ve been speaking to. People on the high street are unaware of us. Brand awareness for JD Williams, our biggest brand, is only just over 30%,” a refreshingly honest Angela Spindler, chief executive of N Brown Group, tells Drapers.

Now just over a year into her role, having taken the reins at the home shopping business from a retiring Alan White in July 2013, she is equally clear about what she needs to do to move it - and JD Williams in particular - forward.

“There is a real opportunity to get the message out there, but it is important to get the message right first,” she explains. “Our fit credentials already exist [JD Williams caters for women sized from 10 up to 32] but there was an opportunity to improve fashionability and contemporise the way we present product.”

Relaunched in July for autumn 14, the JD Williams range has gone through a massive overhaul: “We were quite eclectic in our approach to range development, with a bit of everything rather than really backing what we would consider to be the key colours, shapes, trends and prints for the season. Now, you will see much more design influence coming through in the product.” For example, bestsellers this season include a lime green sweater from the Lorraine Loves range (fronted by TV presenter Lorraine Kelly), when normally the brand would have stuck to safer colours such as navy.

More entry level-priced pieces have been added to encourage new shoppers, with the tops that cost £20 or less increased from 25% to 37% of the collection, and the exit price remaining at about £150 for coats.

“Those are the things we have focused on in advance of really adjusting our marketing. And that change [marketing] happens mainly in the autumn season. The bulk of our marketing started from September,” she says.

She adds that being a traditional mail order business, N Brown is great at customer relationship management, having captured data for years and always interacted with customers remotely. Despite already being a strong business when she joined, she says it was “caught in the old catalogue and mail order world in terms of our marketing techniques”. This year Spindler and her team have changed the phasing of JD Williams’ marketing from March and July to May and September/October to appeal to customers in-season. This season saw that plan gather momentum with JD Williams’ first TV advertising campaign, featuring Lorraine Kelly, representing a move away from focusing all its investment on paper-based marketing.

N Brown as a group has also adjusted the way it buys and merchandises. Again this is particularly the case for JD Williams, and does not apply so much to plus-size womenswear brand Simply Be and menswear brand Jacamo, which are evenly split between pre- and in-season checking. This is a switch from the traditional mail order model - of stock coming in at the start of the season in January, with marketing that season then spent managing the exit of that stock, typically via direct mail, before doing the same again in July - to more of the in-season approach seen at Simply Be and Jacamo.

When she took on the top job at N Brown, Spindler - who is wearing a Basler asymmetric jersey dress purchased from Gray & Osbourn - brought an impressive retail pedigree. This included more than 10 years at Asda from 1997 to February 2008, during which time she was also global managing director for its clothing brand George, as well as holding non-fashion roles heading up property and marketing; managing director of Debenhams from 2008 to 2009; and chief executive of The Original Factory Shop for four-and-a-half years from January 2009.

She has slimmed down the N Brown portfolio from 12 to eight fashion brands, to focus on its core interests JD Williams (which alone turns over around £450m), Simply Be and Jacamo, along with “strong support brands” Fashion World and Marisota (both plus-size womenswear), and then “really important” subsidiary brands such as Figleaves lingerie and Gray & Osbourn, which has a more premium womenswear offer. Those aimed at customers aged 45 to 65, such as women’s footwear business The Shoe Tailor and That’s My Style womenswear, have been absorbed under the JD Williams umbrella to avoid repetition, while plus-size womenswear brand Ambrose Wilson and Fifty Plus - which claims to have the market’s largest size 16 offer - will follow suit over the course of next season.

“Creating that focus has been an important part of what I have done, because it has allowed us to adjust our marketing investment and activity. Directing traffic to fewer bigger brands is more efficient than having 15 brands,” Spindler explains.

Teaming up with daytime TV queen Kelly for JD Williams was an inspired move - N Brown’s consumer testing showed she resonates heavily with their target 50-plus fashion-conscious women. Kelly’s personalised edit of the JD Williams collection, Lorraine Loves, launched in July with a press viewing at the Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard in London, where she warned guests to “ignore the over-50s at your peril”. This will be followed by a spring 15 collection designed in collaboration with Kelly. Exact details of the range - other than it will be available in sizes 10 to 32, along with JD Williams’ wider offer - and what it will be called are yet to be confirmed. Spindler says: “She came to us right at the beginning with loads of ideas. In fact, I met her in my office before we’d even signed up. It was still very speculative and she had a couple of dresses in her handbag that she loved the fabric and shape of, and wanted to say this is the kind of thing she had in mind.”

There are no plans to open any JD Williams stores, but the same can’t be said of its Simply Be and Jacamo brands. Just last week Drapers reported on the opening of N Brown’s first Oxford Street store - a dual fascia Simply Be and Jacamo shop at numbers 138-140. Currently there are 11 UK Simply Be and Jacamo stores, and Spindler wants to increase this to between 25 and 30 over the next 18 months. She adds: “We make no apologies if it takes longer. We want to wait for the right sites.”

She says the store openings have created a halo effect on online sales, boosting trade by up to 6% for Simply Be and Jacamo in areas where there is a store: “The reason for us opening stores is not because we want to maximise retail sales, it is because we want to maximise online sales.”

Online accounts for 58% of total revenues, with 48% of web traffic and 37% of sales coming from mobile devices, including tablets - which Spindler expects to become a big driver for future sales.

As well as important moves this year such as accepting cash customers rather than exclusively offering a credit agreement, and key hires such as Andy Haywood from pharmacy Boots as chief information officer to lead the overhaul of its legacy IT systems and website navigation, Spindler has put an international team of around 12 in place to grow the company globally. The team is now focused on pushing Simply Be in the US via a dollar website, after a trial launched in 2010. “The reason is that it is a really underserved market. The plus-size market in general is pretty well served, but the offer tends to be more classic, relaxed leisurewear rather than real fashion.”

Spindler’s changes appear to be paying off.

N Brown ranks 20th in the overall UK clothing market for 2014 in terms of sales, just behind House of Fraser but in front of Asos, according to Verdict Research. In 2014 the market research firm expects it to claim a 1.1% share of overall fashion spend, with as much as 5.1% in online spend. Verdict senior retail analyst Honor Westnedge says it is well placed to take advantage of the UK’s growing plus-size market: “Being a remote player it doesn’t benefit from passing footfall or attracting consumers who still do not purchase via catalogue or online, so it needs to heavily invest in marketing the brand to raise consumer recognition. The Lorraine Kelly range will improve brand awareness and should drive footfall of new shoppers.”

Alistair Davies, equity research retail analyst at broker Investec, agrees: “N Brown is at an interesting juncture. Simply Be and Jacamo have been performing well but JD Williams hasn’t lately and it is a large part of the business. So she is quite right to focus on that.”

Westnedge says efforts should be made to improve the online customer experience at JD Williams by introducing functions such as a live web chat option to provide style, fit and comfort advice, and Collect+ for delivery and returns.

In the 26 weeks to August 30, group revenues were hit by factors such as the rephasing of marketing spend for JD Williams and Simply Be and a 24% reduction in catalogue marketing, leading to an overall sales drop of 0.6%. However, the results indicate a longer-term step in the right direction; JD Williams recorded a 3% dip in sales during the period due to the transition, but a 20% increase in new customers, while Simply Be and Jacamo’s sales grew by 4% and 10% respectively. N Brown Group’s annual results to March 1 showed sales up 6.4% to £834.9m.

Spindler concludes: “Only the paranoid survive. Most people can shop where they want. There has to be a reason for you to exist and for us that is the ability to produce fashionable clothes that fit and flatter regardless of your size.”

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