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The Drapers Interview: Ed's own brand dream for John Lewis

After a year in the job and having recently reshaped his fashion buying team, Ed Connolly is preparing to ramp up John Lewis’s women’s proposition and own brand collections.

Ed Connolly John Lewis

Ed Connolly, fashion and beauty buying director, John Lewis

It has been what he describes as “a whirlwind of a year”, but as Ed Connolly reached his first anniversary as John Lewis’s fashion and beauty buying director this month, he is spearheading significant changes to the department store group’s fashion offer.

In his sights are the women’s proposition and own brand collections. To guide the refresh of both he is relying on his experience as buying director for electricals and home technology and more than a decade’s knowledge of the John Lewis customer.

Connolly took on the head fashion buying role in June 2014 when interim director Meg Lustman moved to head up Hobbs. Before this he had led the electricals and home technology department since July 2011 after first joining John Lewis in 2004 as business development manager from Tesco, where he was buying manager for audio and TV.

In his first year in the job, fashion has been a strong performer. In the year to January 31 the category’s sales rose 8.3%, and the own brand Kin range increased 46.6% owing to a larger offer, stronger product and an online push. The latest figures as Drapers went to press indicated fashion sales were up 0.1% for the week ending June 13. John Lewis’s UK clothing market share by value is predicted to rise from 2.1% in 2014 to 2.2%in 2015, according to retail analyst Verdict; the fashion and beauty departments make up about a third of total sales.

Speaking to Drapers in the Rossopomodoro restaurant at the Oxford Street flagship, the confident and affable buyer says his fashion shake-up started earlier this month, with the restructure of his buying groups.

As revealed by Drapers in April, Connolly - who now leads nearly 400 staff, compared with about 75 in his previous role - reshuffled and promoted a number of buyers (see box, page 20) and formed two new buying groups: women’s accessories, and beauty, wellbeing and leisure.

He explains that combining beauty, wellbeing and leisure - with sportswear moving into this group from menswear - under former technology buyer Matt Leeser, is aimed at “telling one overall story about how we can help customers to improve their lifestyles” and creating a health and beauty destination. “We think it’s a wide open space for John Lewis,” he adds. John Lewis believes Leeser’s tech background could help it capitalise on the wearable technology market.

Lingerie has moved from womenswear to women’s accessories to “give womenswear the opportunity to really focus in on its core merchandise principles”, and because “we see lingerie being bought more like an accessory, rather than womenswear”.

Steve Hudson, managing director of lingerie brand Curvy Kate, which began selling in John Lewis just before Connolly took on the role, says the move will “raise the profile of the category and give it greater attention, which can only have a positive effect”.

Of the wider strategy, Connolly explains: “At its heart it is a signal of investment into fashion and beauty from the John Lewis Partnership. This is the area of the business that we want to grow the fastest over the next five years.

“The women’s proposition overall is a major strategic priority for us but within that you’ve got to consider beauty, wellbeing and accessories as well. What we were clear about was that the women’s proposition was the area that would see the best returns if we invested in it next.”

On the specifics of this investment, Connolly remains coy as his team is preparing a strategy that will be announced later this summer.

However, he admits a big focus will be on boosting own brand: “We have a plan to double the participation of [own brand] products within womenswear.”

While he is unable to reveal the current split between branded and own brand across womenswear, he says this doubling is anticipated over the next five years.

Although own brand menswear will continue to grow, he says: “I don’t think it will be as pronounced as what we’ll see on womenswear”.

The group has seven own labels including women’s workwear line John Lewis Collection, women’s casualwear brand John Lewis Collection Weekend, contemporary men’s, women’s and kids’ line Kin, and menswear brands John Lewis Man and more premium line JL&Co. Womenswear prices range from £19 for a Kin T-shirt to £180 for a John Lewis Core dress (the Core range comprises pieces that don’t fit into the other collections), while in menswear it is £7 for a John Lewis Man pocket square to £225 for a JL&Co suit jacket.

Standout pieces for this season include Kin’s Kimono print dress (£59), for which sales are up 50% compared with a similar style last year. Dress sales within the Kin range are up 76% year on year. Kin’s blue tonic suit is the leading item in menswear, up 15% on sales of the same suit last year.

Connolly discloses with a smile that there will be more own brands on the way. “We’re developing this at the moment, so we’re not ready to say what or when, but you will see that happen. You’ll definitely see it on both [women’s and men’s].”

And following the success of collaborations such as Somerset by Alice Temperley, which was first launched in 2012, more tie-ups are on the cards.

Alluding again to future launches, he reveals: “There will be some very exciting collaborations across men’s and women’s that we unveil over the course of the next 12 months.”

Honor Westnedge, clothing and footwear analyst at Verdict, explains new collaborations will help John Lewis “premiumise its private label offer” and further differentiate it from rivals like House of Fraser, Selfridges and Debenhams, while increasing own brands could help protect margins when persistent discounting and its 75-year-old Never Knowingly Undersold promise mean in the current promotion-driven market it is constantly dragged into competitors’ Sales.

According to Anusha Couttigane, fashion consultant at Conlumino, increasing own brand designs will afford John Lewis more control over price at the consumer end, “enabling it to attract more price-conscious consumers, with a view to converting them to more expensive ranges when disposable incomes rise”, while also “establishing its design status in its own right, rather than off the back of the edit of external brands it hosts”.

For Connolly, it is a mix of the two viewpoints: “We’re expanding own brand so we can strengthen our offer and standing as a fashion brand. It’s not about reducing the amount of discount we’re committed to matching, although that might be a consequence.”

Despite summer Sales already being in full swing, Connolly sees the potential for retailers to start rowing back from frequent promotions as consumer confidence improves - although he concedes this will take time to work through - and he predicts Black Friday discounts may “plateau” this year after last year’s spike. But even if neither happens, he is standing by the Never Knowingly Undersold promise as being sustainable.

“That’s part of the contract with customers. It does produce extra work and it is harder but it’s something that’s at the very heart of what we do and I think it always will be, so we’ve got to accept it and embrace it.

“I think it’s fair to say it’s not going anywhere.”

Third-party brands will not be immune to change, and Connolly admits some will gradually be dropped amid a push for a more contemporary offer. He describes the retailer’s core age demographic as a “really broad church” but with a sweet spot at 35-plus.

Current bestselling brands include Mint Velvet, Ted Baker, Trilogy and Reiss. Online and in-store prices range across brands from £6 for an Oasis cami to £750 for a women’s Aquascutum coat. On men’s it is £14 for a Selected Homme vest top to £950 for an Aquascutum suit.

“On the whole we are looking to make our ranges more contemporary and exit brands that are not performing for us. That push will continue. It will be an evolution rather than a revolution, but on the whole we will see more youthful contemporary brands come into the ranges.”

Connolly refuses to name those that could lose out, but stresses: “We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have strong loyalty from our customers across all catchments and we need to make sure we cater for them. But what I would like to do is provide them with more inspiration, more excitement and a more contemporary choice. A result of that is some brands exiting our business.”

He points to the success of the Trilogy edit of contemporary denim brands - like J Brand, Paige and Helene Berman - in the company’s Peter Jones store in Sloane Square, west London, in January, which “shows us the customer is absolutely there and wants us to move into this space.

“We consider this an incredibly successful venture into new territory and something we would be keen to roll out as fast as we can.”

To ramp up this refresh and constantly provide shoppers with inspiration, John Lewis is migrating away from the core spring/summer and autumn/winter buying seasons, which Connolly describes as creating a “two-gear dynamic that is not really appropriate for what customers are looking to buy” and the “buy now, wear now phenomenon”.

This means focusing on more frequent drops and nuanced transitional ranges, but he believes fashion’s faster pace and the wealth of information available now is making it easier for buyers to deliver key trends.

He explains: “If you move from two drops a year to six [you improve] your ability to get the right trends because there are more trends out there, [as well as]the ability to make that come to life through product.”

Despite this heightened fashion focus, Connolly rules out any future fashion-only stores.

“I really don’t think it will happen. The focus is clear on developing world-class department stores and online business that cater for our unique product mix. If we hive one part of that off we risk confusing customers.”

And the biggest surprise since taking on this role? Despite his tech background, it has been the level of work involved in responding to frequent customer events - like House of Fraser’s Extravaganza and Debenhams’ Blue Cross Sales - and their impact on fashion as prices move down and back up again.

The key difference, he explains, is that electricals is a deflationary market and prices change every day but only tend to drop. Constantly changing fashion prices, when dealing with tens of thousands of SKUs, is more demanding.

To cope with this, he is applying lessons learnt from the electrical business.

“What the technology calendar does very effectively is build out a programme of events well in advance and it’s therefore on the front foot when those things come around. What I’m trying to bring into fashion is a discipline that the technology market has as second nature - thinking about those major weekends and events that are happening throughout the season, so if launching new season or a new brand, we need to do it in a five-star way.”

With an increasingly contemporary offer and more designer collaborations, John Lewis is taking the competition to rivals like House of Fraser and the Designers at Debenhams collection. As the fashion offer transitions and is refreshed it is also likely to appeal to a wider demographic, bringing fashion more in line with the retailer’s wider offer.

If Connolly’s first year was a whirlwind, the next few will be just as frantic as he puts his plans into action. Meanwhile, brands and competitor retailers will be watching his every move closely.

The new fashion and beauty buyers:

Jo Bennett – promoted from womenswear buyer to head of buying for womenswear

Matt Leeser – moved from head of buying for technology to head of buying for beauty, wellbeing and leisure, including sportswear

Camilla Rowe – moved from head of buying for kidswear, nursery and toys to head of buying for women’s accessories

Caroline Bettis – promoted from nursery buyer to head of buying for kidswear, nursery and haberdashery

Nick Keyte – remains head of buying for menswear, including accessories

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