brands that go bang

Can Joe Fresh Save JCPenney... and Retail?

Posted by Renèe Alexander on April 18, 2013 02:11 PM

If observers of Canada’s fashion industry have learned anything over the last 30 years, it’s this: don’t bet against Joe Mimran.

The brains behind Joe Fresh, which just celebrated its first anniversary of bringing contemporary styles and affordable prices to the US with an exclusive fashion show at its flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York, continues to be a fashion force and is showing no signs of getting stale.

The 61-year-old is currently overseeing a major country-wide expansion south of the 49th parallel. Joe Fresh’s “store-within-a-store” concept opened up to rave reviews in nearly 700 of JCPenney’s 1,100 locations a few weeks ago. Amidst JCPenney's ongoing retail debacle, much of the media attention had centered on now-ousted JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson hitching perhaps his last cart to Mimran. It's obvious that if Joe Fresh and the sampling of other top designers can't pull through with improved sales figures for the chain, JCPenney's days will surely be numbered.

“If Joe Fresh doesn’t work, this could be the worst ides of March since Brutus greeted Caesar on the floor of the Senate,” Maxim analyst Rick Snyder told Business Week. “(Joe Fresh) is kind of a microcosm of what they’re trying to do, and if it doesn’t work, I think it’s going to get really ugly.”

Nevermind Martha—if Joe Fresh can't boost JCPenney—whose shares jumped five percent on Joe's debut weekend—then nobody can. All it takes is one quick look at Mimran’s resume and it’s plain to see—the Moroccan-born fashionista knows his stuff and he’s got the marketshare, revenue and real estate to back it up.

He started Club Monaco in the mid-1980s with a 5,000-square-foot store on Queen Street West in Toronto. By 1999, it had 125 stores worldwide, in countries including the US, Japan, Turkey and Sweden. Later that year, Club Monaco was bought by a little clothing company called Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. for millions, however the reatil chain still operates under its own name. 

Mimran dabbled in a few other fashion-related businesses before launching Joe Fresh Style for the Loblaws grocery chain in 2006. Loblaws’ stores had long sold children’s clothing but they had never branched out into the adult market until the Joe Fresh store-within-a-store concept was unveiled in 40 of its grocery outlets. Within its first 18 months, Joe Fresh had reportedly racked up $400 million in sales. (The “Style” was eventually dropped from the brand.)

Four years later, it unveiled its first stand-alone Joe Fresh store in Vancouver. Today, Joe Fresh apparel is available in more than 300 supermarkets and stand-alone locations in Canada and is widely credited for boosting Loblaws’ marketshare. After all, what’s more convenient for on-the-go moms than picking up groceries and some overalls, socks and hoodies all under the same roof?

Joe Fresh has also branched out into sleepwear, lingerie, kids clothing, swimwear, sunglasses and even cosmetics. But the long-term success of Joe Fresh in the US isn’t purely tied to earnings, according to Wharton marketing professor David Bell. “There will need to be some boost in traffic and sales,” he said. “But the arrangement might also be considered successful if it helps to reinvigorate the J.C. Penney brand as well.”

The positive vibrations from Joe Fresh’s country-wide splash could signal further changes at JCPenney if a report by research firm International Strategy & Investment is to be believed. The report advises that the smartest move JCPenney could make is to cut its own brand out altogether and sublet its space out to other retailers.

Bell is a fan of the idea, pointing out that many e-commerce retailers are finding it helps boost sales if they have physical stores, too. “[Men's clothing] e-commerce retailer Bonobos has guide shops and a deal with Nordstrom, and [eyeglass company] Warby Parker has 13 showroom partnerships and will soon open flagship stores. My sense is that there are a large number of e-tailers that would love to have a physical presence.”

That may be the case but considering Mimran’s track record, JCPenney would be wise to give him a chance to work Joe’s magic one more time.

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