Retail Insights

Is Joe Fresh Still Fresh Enough?

RR Joe FreshI heard good things about Joe Fresh from a friend a couple of years ago, so I visited the Madison Avenue store, which initially opened in October, 2011 as a pop-up. It was a bright, fun place in a convenient neighborhood location. I bought a cotton V-neck cardigan in orange, Joe Fresh’s signature color, for about $19. I returned several times to buy Christmas gifts that season. Joe Fresh seemed a good resource for low priced, colorful, clean looking, basics. A poorer woman’s JCrew, perhaps a bit younger, certainly much, much cheaper — decent enough quality for the price, with a teeny bit of a contemporary edge. Joe Fresh has a much narrower, more classic and basic-focused assortment than H&M, with equally low prices, and is a refreshing, lower priced alternative to the now muddy Gap.

In 2004, Loblaw’s, Canada’s largest retailer with 1000 corporate and franchised stores, serving 14 million customers weekly, reached out to Joe Mimram, the co-founder, of Club Monaco, to create a clothing line to be sold in Loblaw’s supermarkets. Loblaw’s had extensive and successful experience with private brands, including President’s Choice, the maker of the Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie, the number-one selling cookie in Canada. But those cookies were not enough to meet the threat of Walmart’s ever expanding Canadian Supercenters. And so, a well priced, well designed clothing line for Loblaw’s made sense. Joe Fresh was launched with women’s apparel in 40 Loblaw stores in 2006 and exceeded sales expectations. Today, Joe Fresh is sold in 340 Loblaw’s stores and includes women, children and men’s clothing, shoes, accessories, cosmetics, bath and body. In 2010, Loblaw’s launched the first Joe Fresh stand-alone store in Vancouver, and there are now 16 in Canada.

Joe Mimram, whose Loblaw corporate title is Creative Director of Joe Fresh, Home and Entertainment for Loblaw’s Companies, Ltd., has become Joe Fresh’s cheerful ‘designer-creator’ and spokesperson. The name Joe Fresh emanates from both Mimram, its creator, as well as from its food store association. The use of a clear typeface, plus a strong, bright, clear orange color in all branding — logo, signage, shopping bags, etc.— is distinctive, and you can see it standing out clearly in a food setting. Interestingly, many of the consumers I interviewed in New York for this article who’d never heard of Joe Fresh associated it with food: “I have no clue what it is, is it a new gourmet grocery? If so, it seems a clever name.”

Fresh is US

The feeling at a Joe Fresh store is open, bright and contemporary. This is strong fast-fashion at extremely low prices, and the equation seems to be working, at least in Canada, where sales for Joe Fresh are said to be about $1 billion. That pop-up store on Madison and 80th in Manhattan has since become permanent and one of seven Joe Fresh US stores, all located in the New York Metro, including one in Southampton, which will reopen this summer. That excludes the over 650 branded Joe Fresh JC Penney locations launched in March, 2013 as part of Ron Johnson’s JCP turnaround dream. Reportedly, Loblaw’s made a four-year deal for Joe Fresh with Johnson for those shops-within-shops and on JCP.com. At the time, Vincente Trius, Loblaw’s president, told a reporter that the deal with Penney required “limited financial risk, no capital expenditure and probably just a few people to manage the operation.” Sounds too good to be true, and, in my opinion it was, especially now that Ron Johnson’s JCP vision is dead and Penney has returned to its previous promotionally driven mode in a quest to regain the lost sales and traffic of its primary middle-of-the-road, middle American, middle income customer. Joe Fresh in JC Penney is merchandised the same way as in Joe Fresh stand-alone stores, but it is so much smaller and buried so deeply in the recesses of a sea of poorly lit other less distinctively branded product that it lacks the punch and clarity of the presentation found in Joe Fresh stores. Joe Fresh merchandise on JCP.com is promotionalized; there are lots of sale items. At last look, JCP.com showed 304 Joe Fresh items: 105 were on sale, 182 on clearance. The models on JCP.com are no longer Joe Fresh icons — young, clean and fresh. They too have been ‘Pennified’ to look older, more ordinary, less stylish, and they convey none of the mystique the Joe Fresh brand achieves in its own stores and communications. Galen G. Weston, Executive Chairman of Loblaw, said recently of Penney’s de-emphasis of the brand post-Johnson, “It hasn’t gone the way we hoped it would.”

Fresh Flagship: A Stake in the Ground to Build On

The Joe Fresh 17,000-square-foot New York flagship is located on the corner of 43rd and Fifth Avenue in a landmarked, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed former bank. The store opened in March 2012 with some fanfare — Mayor Bloomberg called it “Canada’s greatest export since Justin Bieber.” I visited the store in January, 2014, when New York was blanketed in snow and the temperature was 19 degrees. The space is open, light and airy with 27-foot-high glass windows and a large interior escalator, another of those open retail masterpiece staircases which seem all the rage since the floating stairs envisioned by Steve Jobs appeared in the Apple store years ago. Despite the cold, the Joe Fresh merchandise set that day was early spring bright blue and white, lime green and white, and black and white with very effective displays and good looking, low-priced merchandise including some Chanel inspired pieces. There were brightly colored skinny, stretchy, cropped jeans sharply priced at $19 and luscious looking men’s and women’s lollipop colored cashmere sweaters. One salesperson told me the cashmeres were selling well — it was 19 degrees after all, and aren’t retail sales affected by the weather?

I asked consumers what they thought of Joe Fresh. Many liked it, echoing fast fashion’s formula for success: “great prices for current trends,” “good design and price,” “very fashion forward and good prices,” “prices seem reasonable and the styles are clever.” Not surprisingly, the consumers I talked to like to update their wardrobes on the cheap, even if they don’t have to, because it is fun. A cosmetic executive who regularly shops Bergdorf likes Joe Fresh for “attractive clothes, fun to update wardrobe.” But, some consumers did not like the quality, “I don’t think the quality of the clothes is very good… the dye on my jeans comes off on my hands, my couch!” Others found fault with the fit. A twenty-something fashionista thinks Joe Fresh “is good for basics, but fails to deliver fashionable clothing that fits well.” A young working mom likes the store and the on-trend, still classic styling, but also questions the fit: “…the fit isn’t great. If I pay for alterations, not sure it’s worth the buy.”

The Penney association was viewed negatively by the consumers I interviewed. One young woman summed it up: “On the JC Penney thing, I’ve never shopped there and I guess I’ve never been interested in shopping there. I associate JC Penney with clothes that are low quality and not stylish. The fact that they are now in JC Penney is slightly disappointing. I was excited to see a fresh affordable and practical brand emerge, much like Uniqlo. I thought the fact that they were Canadian was interesting.It was a clean, cool man’s brand. Now it is just an every man’s brand.”

The question of whether Joe Fresh is fresh enough to succeed as a global brand, Mimram’s goal, is not yet answered. Loblaw has just announced three international partnerships that will add 141 Joe Fresh stores in 23 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and South Korea. The expansion will be executed through wholesale agreements, which, according to Executive Chairman Weston, entail “no material risk from a capital perspective.” The stores will be built by the partners; Mimram and Loblaw’s will provide merchandise tailored to local tastes with guidance from the partners. If the stores look as fresh as that Fifth Avenue New York flagship, my guess is that Joe Fresh could become another successful global brand like Uniqlo, Zara and H&M. But if Loblaw’s new partners are anything like Penney, I say watch out. Loblaw’s is making a bold move into a world well beyond its borders and its core business. Hopefully the Joe Fresh global expansion will be fresh, sustainable and profitable, even though Loblaw’s claims not to be making a significant capital investment. I’m not sure how that is possible, but, good luck, because Joe Fresh is definitely a fresh new brand, and, for me, it is nice to have them in my neighborhood.

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