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Brit Pop

Laura Tenison explains why JoJo Maman Bébé is well prepared to top the charts in America, too.

laura-pr-cropComing to America in search of sales growth is a natural next step for many international children’s brands, but selling to even a slice of the American market can be a huge hurdle. First, manufacturers must account for stricter safety standards and testing requirements in the U.S. Then, there’s the conundrum of shipping goods across the globe. But the biggest question brands struggle to answer is how to get on the radar with shoppers across such a demographically diverse and geographically large landscape.

Enter Laura Tenison. The founder and owner of British children’s brand JoJo Maman Bébé, Tenison’s road map for U.S. expansion could serve as a primer for companies looking to find a new crop of customers in America. Beginning with extensive market testing to ensure the brand’s French-nautical-inspired designs would be well-received with American moms, to investments in everything from sales reps to a new distribution warehouse in New Jersey, her deliberate planning has positioned the brand to resonate with both retailers and parents alike.

Then again, given Tenison’s history of building JoJo Maman Bébé from a 24-page mail order catalog in 1993 to a 75-store retail juggernaut in the U.K., perhaps it’s not so surprising that the brand’s American expansion has gone so smoothly. You could even say Tenison has been preparing for this moment since she was a child, when she spent her time making clothes for her dolls. She launched her first fashion endeavor, a menswear line, in college. “I had a little fashion company, but I struggled to grow it bigger than literally making the clothes myself with the help of a couple of outworkers. I found that in order to grow the business I needed more capital than I could beg or borrow, and I wasn’t prepared to steal,” she says with a laugh.

Many aspiring designers would have thrown in the towel, but Tenison began devising a long-term strategy instead.  “I decided that the way around the problem of being undercapitalized was to launch a company in the service industry, because I realized I could borrow a little bit more money, like £2,000,” she recalls. “That was a time when the British were quite excited about buying property in France because we were going through a very big recession in the U.K., and property prices were still extremely expensive. But French rural properties were available quite cheap. I had a lot of friends who were just beginning to want to get on the property ladder, and while the U.K. was outside their reach, in Brittany you could buy a nice little cottage.”

So Tenison took her £2,000 and launched a real estate company in Brittany, France. Just three years later, she was able to sell the business and use the money to launch JoJo Maman Bébé in 1993. Her time in Brittany, however, led to more than just the cash she needed to get the company off the ground—it also inspired the idea for the brand itself.

Shortly before she planned to go back to the U.K. and launch her menswear line, Tenison suffered 20 broken bones from a head-on car collision, which landed her in the hospital for months. In one of those strange twists of fate, she shared a room with a young mother, who often bought clothing for her kids from her bed. “During the next few weeks, I got to know the childrenswear market quite well, because I was in traction and she would throw catalogs to me in my bed, and I would read them. As I got better, I started thinking there was a gap in the market here for a good, French-nautical-inspired childrenswear catalog,” Tenison remembers.

“I took to the streets in my wheelchair, and did a market research survey,” she continues. “When I was talking to moms across the British Isles, they said, ‘Yes, we like the idea of French-style children’s fashion, but what we really want right now is maternity wear.’ So my first collection was very, very small—it had about 30 styles, of which I had about 20 maternity and 10 kids. It was always the idea that I would grow the brand back into childrenswear, but if I could market to the pregnant mom, she would then obviously have a baby, and then those babies would grow.”

As those babies grew, so did the collection, which now offers everything from maternity wear and layette, to sportswear, outerwear, accessories, gifts and toys for kids up to size 6. Though JoJo continues to send out a catalog to its customers, the majority of the brand’s U.K. sales now come from its 75 retail stores and its website, which launched in 1997. Today, the company earns around $75 million a year, and with sales in America taking off, Tenison reports, that number is only poised to grow.

In recognition, Tenison herself has earned many accolades, including a spot on the Queen’s birthday honors list and an honorary doctorate of business from the University of East London. Not surprisingly, she lists “business growth” and “seeing year on year increases in sales” as some of the best parts of her job, but she also gets a thrill when celebrities like the Duchess of Cambridge step out sporting a JoJo style. (That white maternity coat she was snapped wearing? It sold out in minutes.) But “more than anything,” she adds, “I like seeing children on the street wearing our designs. To this day, where we’re making hundreds of thousands of garments, I still get a thrill if I see a toddler walking down the street in JoJo.”

JoJo has been a bestselling brand in the U.K. for more than 20 years. What inspired you to cross the pond?

Three years ago we realized the British Isles are a very small market, and we were getting more and more interest from our international clients. So we did some marketing in 10 different countries to see where the most interest would come from. We’re very careful never to invest until we’ve tested a market. And after our little bit of market testing, we found that America was the most receptive part of the world. American consumers like our price points, they like our practicality and our fun British designs.

How did you conduct the market testing?

We tested each market initially by running some advertisements on Google directing people back to the U.K. website but with local landing pages. So if you were dialing in from an American URL, you would have seen a landing page on the front of your screen that would say, ‘Hello, we’re a British mother and baby brand. We’re happy to ship to you in America.’ At that point, all the distribution was coming from the U.K., so obviously it wasn’t particularly convenient, because there’s a long lead time for orders and the shipping was very expensive. But it gave us the ability to analyze the local markets and see who likes our images.

It was a consumer test, but you knew you wanted to go the B2B route in America, right?

At this stage, we knew we wanted to go into wholesale in America to get the brand known as quickly as possible, but we felt that at the end of the day, it’s the consumer who is buying the clothes. When moms go to the drawer in the morning to dress the baby, if they go for the JoJo outfit first, we know that we’ve got a repeat customer, and they will go back into the store and ask for JoJo again.

It’s a very different route to market than you chose in the U.K. Why did you feel a new approach was necessary in the U.S.?

In the U.K., we no longer do any wholesale, franchise or concessions. We own our own stores.  For the U.K., we feel that’s the right route, since it’s a very small market. The U.S. market is so huge we wouldn’t be able to do that. It would take many, many years. That’s why we definitely rely on our trade partners to represent the brand.

Did you have to make any changes to the brand to adapt to the U.S. market?

We had an internal discussion about how we should approach the U.S., whether we should continue with our very British company ethos and branding or whether we should try and tailor it for the American market. But what we found through online sales was that our U.S. customers like the same things our British customers like. We have had to make some amendments for the American market; you have different safety rules from us, and there is quite a lot of testing all the products have to go through, which is very complicated. Your sizing is a little bit different. So we have had to adapt and improve to fit the market. I think it would be arrogant to say that you can take exactly one format from one country to another, but I think at the end of the day what’s important is maintaining our identity.

Right. That’s what your customers expect. How are you sticking to your British roots?

We are retaining our own customer service center in the U.K., so when our American customers need to talk to us, or email us, they can do so through our toll-free number, and we’re working late into the evening to accommodate East Coast hours. That means that our American customers are talking to people who are really knowledgable. We wouldn’t want to outsource our customer service functionality to a call service. However, we have been shipping from our distribution center in Wales for three years and that has meant some time delays, frustration with customs, etc. Setting up our new dedicated distribution center in Edison, NJ, will make things substantially easier. We already have 40,000 pieces of stock in the warehouse, and there’s a lot more arriving every day. The new distribution center means quicker fulfillment and easier returns for our customers.

You also heavily invested in your sales reps, right?

I launched JoJo myself. I made my first samples on my own sewing machine. It’s still an incredibly personal business to me. We have small company values, but we have grown. We do have a large number of staff now in the U.K. But when we were looking to appoint reps across the U.S. and Canada, we felt they were going to be ambassadors for the brand and it was really important they understood why we put so much attention to detail into the brand, and why we feel so passionately about quality in the clothing itself. So we did bring our reps over to the U.K., and we took them around our different sites. I cooked them dinner in my house. I had to get an extra large table, because I think there were about 18 of us. [Laughs.] But that was quite important to me. We have every confidence in our reps representing the brand because we know we’ve trained them ourselves. And even now I’m in regular contact with our reps as much as possible. It’s the same with our team in the distribution center in the U.S. We’ve already been over twice. Some on my team are going over next week to make sure all of our orders are picked and packed and dispatched correctly. On one side as we grow the company, we can’t micromanage the whole world, but we can try as best we can. [Laughs.]

How are you helping your trade partners in the U.S. grow the brand?

With the launch of our new distribution center in Edison, we have offered an improved price point for our trade customers. We’ve also given them a recommended retail price point, which we have asked our website customers to honor and match. We hope that the larger websites will not try to undercut the independent stores. And we’re absolutely working with our reps to try and increase sales and brand awareness. We’ve increased our reps’ commission this season, and we’ve seen record orders from almost all of them. Yesterday, we were announced the No. 1 export business in Wales and the 11th fastest in all of the British Isles, and a great majority of that is due to the work our reps are doing for us, so that’s really exciting.

Have you noticed any differences between British and American shoppers?

When we announced on Facebook that we were coming to the U.S., a number of JoJo fans responded by saying, ‘We love the brand, but please promise us you’ll be offering the same quality that you offer in the U.K.’ I was surprised to hear that many customers felt that when British or European brands launch in America, the brands reduce the quality of the manufacturing. We were really pleased to be able to reassure all our American customers that we are manufacturing in the same factories. There will be absolutely no change on production quality. Occasionally, we’ll have an American customer say, ‘I love your clothes, but your cotton is too heavy.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s because it’s good quality cotton.’ Sometimes Americans are used to a light, thin cotton, and you’re not going to see that in JoJo clothing. We’re not going to reduce our quality because people in some cases have come to expect a more mass-produced garment. And I think that’s what our American fans are going to look forward to, because they love to receive European-quality product but at mid-market prices, and that’s what JoJo offers.

Is that what makes JoJo stand out from other European brands on the market?

I think so. One of the things you’ll find with JoJo is that we go straight to factory after we design in-house. We cut out a lot of the middleman. As a result, we can pass along really good quality at very reasonable price points. And I think there is a gap in the middle market in the U.S. for this type of good quality brand. We’re a private company. We don’t have to inflate our prices to keep anyone happy. We want to be a great value for the money.

Would you say there were any big turning points for the brand over the years?

As the brand has grown, we’ve been tempted to over-extend ourselves. In good years, the banks and private equity firms have always been generous with their lending. They’ve been extremely encouraging about wanting us to grow the business larger than we felt comfortable with. That’s why the credit crunch of 2008 was an incredibly difficult year for us. It was the only year in our history that we didn’t grow the brand. The business was profitable, but we were relying on the banks for quite a lot of our working capital overdraft. That was the time when I decided I actually wanted to slow down my expansion and be less reliant on borrowing for our business growth. So I think 2008 was a turning point in a way, because it made me much more cautious about how to proceed. I think it’s really important in retail to have reserves; you never know when you’re going to have a bad season because of the weather or economic events. There are lots of things outside your control, and one should never trade to the last penny. You need to have reserves for those difficult periods, which are bound to come around again.

How important is your website to the brand’s overall success?

In the U.K., our website represents about 30 percent of our business, but our website is very much a service for our retail customers. We find that our customers are omnichannel shoppers. If they relate to the brand, they will look at the brand through retail stores, they will go online and they will talk to us through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And they will check their email for offers that bring them into the store. I think the future of retail has to be omnichannel—and this is where it’s really important that retailers don’t feel that websites are competing against them. They need to work together with their brands as a partnership. We would really like to work out how we can work with the people who stock JoJo  to ensure that we can drive customers into their stores with things like marketing offers and new collection information.

It’s safe to say the era of one or two retail channels is over.

There will never be shoppers who only work through one channel anymore. That time is gone. I think we need to embrace omnichannel retail, because it is positive. When we first launched our stores, our mail order managers were very worried; they thought the stores would take business from the mail orders. And of course if we opened a store in a local area, initially our mail order customers may convert into store customers. But the store represents a shop front for the brand. Customers will come inside and buy, or buy online. We need to make sure everyone is supporting everyone. And I think independent retailers should be looking at having their own websites, as well, if they’re not already. In the U.K., you’ll find more and more local groups of independent retailers are bunching together and finding ways to attract their local customer base using some form of local retail shopping scheme, where customers can gain loyalty points. We love local independent retail and we want to encourage it, but I think we need to be realistic about the future of retail.

In an omnichannel world, isn’t there a risk of Amazon replacing all retail?

In some ways, of course, we need to be careful of Amazon and the like, but equally there are many things those vast retailers cannot do. And the one thing an independent boutique can offer is personal service—remembering a customer’s name, offering free gift wrap—these are the sorts of things that make a boutique unique. In the U.K., three-quarters of our business comes from our stores, whereas online it’s all practical stuff. It’s basics. It’s buying the next size up in a pair of tights your child was comfy in. And about a quarter of our purchases in store are for gifts. People come in the store because they want something special, and they want it there and then. They don’t want to wait for delivery, and they don’t want to send it back if it doesn’t work. We expect a similar breakdown in the U.S. We anticipate that we will sell more of the good, old-fashioned basics that we’re well-known for on our website, whereas in the stores, we are more likely to sell the gift items and the items that the consumer really wants to feel and touch before they purchase. That’s why we’re very keen to partner with boutiques that are specifically good at selling gifts.

What advice would you give to a specialty retailer looking to survive in today’s challenging retail climate?

You should always do your cash flow for cost. People don’t go out of business because they aren’t good at business or they don’t have a good customer base. They go out business because of cash flow problems, and they get behind on payments. I’m a very odd salesperson in that I often tell people to buy less, because I would rather they bought less and gradually built up trust in the brand than they overextend themselves and have stock left at the end of the season. I want our stock to sell through at full price. I think people should trade cautiously; they should grow the brand systematically season by season. And, bulking orders together to make sure you reach the minimum order value is obviously important, because then you get your free shipping. Quite often I notice independent retailers don’t care if there’s a shipping charge, but actually on a small order, that shipping charge is eating away at their margin dramatically. And be strategic about how you trade. I often see retailers buying one of each size in a style, and I query why they do that because surely that little outfit is going to sell better on a 2-3 year old, so why buy one of each size? Make sure that you have enough of better-selling sizes that are going to sell out quickly. Otherwise, you’re going to have those split ranges far too early in the season, which doesn’t look great in the store.

Now that JoJo has conquered America, are any other countries on the radar?

We do sell to 40 countries, but it’s pretty reactive at the moment. We aren’t doing any proactive marketing right now. Ask me again in five years time, but right now we’re really concentrating on our American customers. It’s a very big challenge for us. In the U.K., we’re a relatively large company; we have a turnover of about £50 million. In America, we are still very small and we’ve got a long way to go. And even if we became as big as we are in the U.K., we’d still be a small company in America. We’re a small island, and you’re a big, big one. But we do not want to be a large company in America, We want to be a boutique retailer. We want to be that well-kept secret, that great little find that a mom will tell her friends about, but she doesn’t actually want everyone in the street to be wearing. We want to fill that nice little niche in the market for a European brand at great prices. •

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