Will Slow and Steady International Expansion Win the Race for J Crew?

Best known for its geek-chic design, sorbet-coloured knitwear and kitsch layering, J Crew launched a flash pop-up over 24-25 May 2013 in London, ahead of the launch of its first official UK store in November.

While its American contemporaries have been racing ahead with expansion across the Atlantic, this store will be J Crew’s first tryst with European consumers. In 2012, the brand bypassed Europe completely, entering Hong Kong and Beijing via a joint venture with luxury department store Lane Crawford.

Given London’s position as a shopping hub and its burgeoning demand for ‘affordable luxury’, J Crew’s UK store is likely to be a success. Furthermore, it will serve as a template for future store openings, reinforcing the brand’s cautious approach to international expansion.

London calling

London has become a much-loved destination for American brands wishing to make their mark at a global level, most noticeably as a trial zone before expansion into continental Europe.

A spate of US brands have planted their flagships in the city. In 2012, Forever 21 added another 6,300 sq ft to its Oxford Street flagship, Abercrombie & Fitch opened its first international Hollister and Gilly Hicks flagship on the very prominent curve of Regent Street and Victoria’s Secret opened its London flagship on New Bond Street.

Having already made the effort to reach out to the UK consumer on the online front through luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter and its own site, which began shipping to over 100 countries globally in 2012, J Crew’s pop-up was a physical presentation of the brand’s A/W 2013 collection. This range will be available in its permanent store when it opens on London’s Regent Street in November.

A bet on quality

J Crew’s biggest challenge in this market will be courting the UK’s notoriously price-conscious consumers.

The brand is banking heavily on quality as part of its turnaround strategy, which has certainly paid off in its domestic US market. But with its top-notch fabrics and beautiful light fixtures come premium price tags. While the UK’s capricious climate bodes well for J Crew’s celebrated cashmere ranges, it will not be easy to convince British consumers to indulge in featherweight cardigans verging on £200.

It will also need to ensure prices are roughly on a par with the US. The company faced a huge backlash from Canadian consumers in 2011 when they discovered prices were almost 50% higher in Canada than across the border in the US, forcing the brand to re-assess its pricing strategy. While geographically further apart, large price discrepancies are unlikely to go down well with price-savvy consumers in the UK, especially with the proliferation of online shopping.

‘Affordable luxury’ booms

That said, it would be wrong to characterise the British consumer as myopically obsessed with frugality. The stellar performance of premium high street brands like Whistles and Reiss indicate a parallel craving for “affordable luxury”. In other words, premium craftsmanship at accessible price points – music to J Crew’s ears. Following the post-recession shift towards better quality clothing and ‘fast fashion fatigue’, which may only be strengthened by the recent tragedy in Bangladesh, this premium segment has really taken off.

What will tip the scales in J Crew’s favour, compared to contemporaries like Banana Republic and other international labels competing in the same price bracket, will be its brand. It goes to great lengths to cultivate an aura of cult cool. It speaks fashion. This point was only reiterated by its choice to launch its London pop-up away from the predictable destinations of Covent Garden and Oxford Street and on the campus of one of London’s most prestigious art schools, Central Saint Martins. Through several tie-ups with the college, including a scholarship scheme, the brand appears to be sealing its fate with fashion’s trailblazers before catering for the masses.

Plenty of potential for future expansion

J Crew’s focus on quality and maverick style will make it a likely success in the UK, encouraging expansion into other Western European markets with a similar appetite for affordable luxury, like France and Germany.

However, with plenty of organic growth left in North America itself, there is no reason for J Crew to make a slapdash sprint across the rest of the globe. In fact, the decision to withdraw from Japan, where it once operated 70 stores with a partner, and subsequently struggled due to this rapid expansion, turned out to be greatly beneficial to the brand’s turnaround efforts. A limited number of stores in shopping meccas like London and Hong Kong teamed with an utmost focus on branding and product could well be the way forward.