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Exclusive: J.Jill CEO On New Democratization And Pricing Agenda

Women’s premium-casual apparel retailer J.Jill, has launched a new body-inclusive initiative called Welcome Everybody that sets the 60-year-old brand along a path designed to give it new impetus and heighten consumer loyalty.

At the heart of the campaign will be a move to democratize the physical retail shopping offer. This includes broadening size availability in the 249 stores that the brand has around the country while also stepping up communication on how shoppers can style themselves better. From today, sizes offered to customers will run from XS-2X and 0-20, coming closer to the XS-4X and 0-28 sizes that are available to buy at J.Jill online.

Price parity across all sizes is also being introduced for the first time. This will, no doubt, be welcomed by women who need to buy larger sizes but who do not want to pay more for the privilege.

Underlining its commitment to all body sizes and types, J.Jill has partnered with style and body positivity blogger Rochelle Johnson who has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram. She, as well as other influencers, will be spreading the word about the Welcome Everybody campaign and help bring the J.Jill late summer collection to life. Johnson will be offering here styling tips on some of the brand’s new lines to ensure customers can see “someone like herself” in a variety of style options.

The new initiative—based on primary research with thousands of existing and prospective customers over the past year—has been built into all of J.Jill’s recent guidance for 2022, and the company said it will not be issuing new guidance.

From a markdown to full-price model

Welcome Everybody is part of a bigger strategy revamp that CEO, Claire Spofford, has introduced since taking over in February 2021. The company, headquartered just outside Boston, used to carry a lot of markdowns and inventory, but has switched to a full-price model in order to build margin—rather than driving volume sales—as a more efficient way to profitability.

In a call she told me: “We used to go out with a new assortment at 30% off which undermined the perception of the brand. Now we have a scarcity/full-price scenario which is working very well and you can see that in our recent quarterly results. Additionally, with the focus on tighter inventory and our full-price collections we have fewer items in the stores with the room to include extra sizes across all our ranges.”

Given that the typical customer of J.Jill is reasonably sophisticated, aged 45+ with an average household income of $150,000, the markdown route was probably never a great idea. However, during the pandemic, the company was on its knees with the stock tanking to $1.55 in March 2020, and cited by S&P as among the retailers most likely to default. As such every penny counted, but the retailer is now back from the brink with the stock trading at around $16.

Spofford commented: “In the past the company was more focused on the top line but we are now looking at gross profit and a much higher flow through to Ebitda. The customer has responded very well to the reset of the business: by providing the right product for her and giving her the right experience she is willing to pay full price.”

“Show me clothing that fits my body…”

Welcome Everybody is another step on that brand modernization process. “We honestly believe—and it was confirmed in the research—that women want the totality of themselves to be seen, recognized and celebrated,” said Spofford. “Women told us loud and clear: ‘everyone looks good in different styles… show me clothing that fits my body, my preferences, and my lifestyle’, and that’s what we’ve done.”

J.Jill, which started out as a direct-to-consumer catalog brand, had annual sales in FY2021 (ending January 29, 2022) of $585 million, up 37.1% with a roughly even 50:50 split between store sales and e-commerce. Pre-covid, annual sales were nearer $700 million, so there is still work to do. In its latest results for the 13 weeks ended April 30, 2022 sales were up 22% to $157 million.

The new initiative has launched at the start of the company’s third quarter. It is “a big awareness opportunity for us” noted Spofford without commenting on the potential sales growth the campaign might deliver in the current three months. She said: “We are much smaller that a lot of our retail competition. Welcome Everybody reflects an enterprise-wide approach to modernizing our value proposition and clearly communicating the significant offerings we have in this space. There is potential for store unit growth as well.”

J.Jill also hopes to enhance loyalty with new consumers through the Welcome Everybody initiative. Average tenure with the brand is strong at 10 years—claimed to be a segment-leading retention rate. In an age of diminishing brand loyalty due to social media, fast fashion, and emerging DTC brands, maintaining that kind of allegiance while also growing its share among women aged 45+ will be an impressive feat to pull off.