Owner Darren Hoggett explains how his 50-year-old out-of-town East Anglian independent J&B Menswear found its niche
Nestled between rows of residential houses on a B road leading out of Norwich city centre you will find J&B Menswear. A 10-minute drive from the Intu Chapelfield shopping centre, you would be forgiven for thinking this is an unlikely spot for a men’s fashion store. Yet 2016 is the independent retailer’s 50th year in business.
As one brand’s sales agent puts it: “They must be doing something right.”
J&B Menswear was founded by John “J” Draper and Brian “B” Hoggett in February 1966 as an outdoor market stall that travelled around Norfolk and north Suffolk selling jeans from Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee. As the business grew, they opened a small warehouse on Magdalen Road, which was extended into the 2,325 sq ft store it is today. By 1996 Hoggett’s children, Darren and elder brother Paul, were getting more involved and bought out Draper, who retained the market stall side of the operation while the brothers took over the store.
“The good thing about being independent is that you can throw all the rules out the window. Indies can do things multiples can’t, or won’t,” says 44-year-old Darren Hoggett in typically outspoken style. “If department stores were run brilliantly, there wouldn’t be much room for indies, but that’s never going to happen.”
With this attitude, the brothers set about transforming J&B Menswear.
“When I came on board I could see that we could go in a slightly more premium direction,” says Hoggett. “A lot of mistakes that brands make is that they want to reposition themselves within a season or two, but you have to do it gradually. Brands like Fred Perry did a brilliant repositioning because they did exactly that. And funnily enough, we did it at the same time.”
The original J&B Menswear market stall
J&B Menswear now stocks 25 labels, including bestseller Fred Perry, Remus Uomo, Merc and Matinique, and some of the originals, such as Levi’s and Lee. They found a niche in this “middle-to-upper middle market”, focusing on 30-to-50-year-olds that aren’t catered for by the “London-centric, under-25 focus” of nearby cities. “I wouldn’t call it the grey pound, but there’s the middle-aged pound we do very well out of,” he says. “You have to be realistic and work to your market, and I think that’s what we do very well.”
“I’ve dealt with J&B Menswear for about 10 to 12 years,” says Keith Walpole, Merc’s sales agent for the Midlands and East Anglia. “Darren is a buyer who knows what to buy and, if he buys it, you know you’re on to a good thing.”
“Darren knows his customer extremely well,” agrees Jack Smith, sales representative for Lee. “He’s stocked Lee for a long time but progresses his buy with new fits every season and stays relevant, always moving forward. You would think it’s harder for him located on the outskirts, but he’s a destination now, particularly for denim.”
The store’s location has never deterred Hoggett. “We’re like a local institution. Stores like us are the future,” he argues. “I predict independents are going to be squeezed out and, as far as prime city centre stores are concerned, there are going to be half the independents left because they won’t be able to afford to be there. If you get to the stage where 70% of sales are online, then why have a city centre spot with falling footfall? You might as well be in a secondary location.”
Hoggett admits he is “a little behind” online. The transactional website was launched in 2013 and the quarter of total sales from online is predicted to rise to a third by the end of 2016.
“The internet makes [trade] even harder,” he says. “For me, distribution is absolutely key and at the moment it isn’t good enough [particularly online]. The whole thing needs ripping up and starting again. If a brand is in one or two of the wrong places, whether it’s online or in stores, it can cause a lot of damage.”
Another issue on which Hoggett has strong views is discount culture.
“Discounting for me is self-defeating. If you are on Sale a lot, it’s an admission of failure and you’re not doing your job,” he says. “Some parts of the trade find us very hard to understand because our Sale period is from the 20-something of December to around the 15 of January. We have a 21-day Sale and that’s it. People in the trade ask, ‘When’s your mid-season Sale? When’s your summer Sale?’ And I say, ‘We don’t have them.’”
But can the industry correct itself? “I think it could, but it’s whether the brands want to. I think it needs to lead from the brands, although the stores have a lot to answer for. There’s too much product in too many stores being sold too cheaply. It comes down to the management of brands, which I don’t think are run particularly well.”
Although Hoggett is happily celebrating J&B Menswear’s 50-year milestone, he does not believe the future will be any easier for independent retailers: “Brands ultimately want to go the fully integrated route. They won’t admit it but that’s the future. They want to make it and they want to sell it, but in my experience brands aren’t always the best retailers.
“But nobody quite knows where it’s going to end up, particularly the internet. The next five years will shape the next 50 for retail. It would be boring if it all became about the internet [though], we still want that contact with actual customers. But I get off on the challenge,” he says with a smile. “You can’t have it too easy – that would be a bit boring.”