There’s nothing fancy, edgy or trendy about J. Jill, and that’s just fine for the enduring misses brand.
This story first appeared in the March 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Kimono sweaters, ponte knit pants, relaxed leggings, sweater toppers and quilted vests — key looks that help define the brand — are resonating with the Baby Boomer customer base, according to J. Jill executives.
Regarding its own outcome in a season where most retailers saw declining sales and earnings, “We believe our results in the fourth quarter compare favorably to our competition,” Paula Bennett, chairman, president and chief executive officer of J. Jill Group Inc., told WWD. “We had positive comparable gains in spite of a challenging environment. There’s been a positive response to the collection and our full-price selling. We did become quite frumpy, but we’ve brought the brand back. It’s easy, relaxed and still modern. We are very [pleased] about where we are.”
“I don’t think we are looking for a younger customer. We love the one we’ve got,” added Joann Fielder, J. Jill’s chief creative officer. “We are not intending to be leading edge, though we do want to maintain a current point of view. We wouldn’t be successful if we went into trendier or faster product.”
Their message is that after being flipped from owner to owner and shedding the dowdier styles, J. Jill is no longer teetering. There’s been recent speculation that J. Jill is up for sale again by its current owners, and those on the inside are certainly flagging that the brand is alive and well. But as a spokeswoman said, “There is no deal pending. Reports about J. Jill being up for sale are all currently speculation. This is the nature of ownership by a venture capital business.”
J. Jill was founded in 1959 by Karl and Mary Ann Lipsky, who sold the business in 1987 to DM Management, which sold it to Talbots in 2006. In 2009, Talbots sold J. Jill for $63 million to Golden Gate Capital, which two years later sold a majority stake to Arcapita, an investment firm and the current owner. Golden Gate remains a minority shareholder.
As Bennett and Fielder see it, J. Jill has hit its stride by connecting with customers and moving forward with a multichannel approach. “There was an overall profit in 2013, as well as consistent, strategic, profitable growth for several years prior to 2013,” Bennett said, without specifying the results.
Other sources said earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization are about $60 million. The company ended 2013 with sales of $455 million, about $30 million above 2012. About 60 percent of the volume is generated by the stores; 33 percent through the Web site, and 7 percent is ordered directly from the catalogue. E-commerce grew about 15 percent last year. The company distributed 48 million catalogues last year through 23 editions. “We have reduced our circulation of catalogues, but they’re our main marketing vehicle. We have a very strong multichannel platform,” said Bennett.
Stores in The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey and Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station, N.Y., have been renovated to a prototype, designed by Robin Kramer, and a new store in Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego has been developed as a prototype. Existing units in Bellevue Square in Bellevue, Wash., the Galleria at Edina in Minneapolis and The Village at Corte Madera in Corte Madera near San Francisco are being either renovated or relocated in the prototype format this year. The 234-unit J. Jill chain plans to roll out 12 to 15 stores this year. “We can grow to up to 300 stores by 2016,” Bennett said.
The company operates two clearance centers, in Maine and North Carolina, and has no physical outlets, though there is a perpetual online outlet and clearance sales online. “We are building our full-price business and focused on creating product our customer is happy to pay full price for. Outlets would be down the road if we needed to drive volume,” said Bennett. The brand message is not promotional, she emphasized. “We have a regular markdown cadence and we have sales. We are in the game when we need to be. We’re not ignoring what’s going on out there. But our business is not all about putting out coupons and continually selling at 40 percent.”
J. Jill’s research into its client base shows that more than 70 percent of its customers work outside the home, have college educations, are married or have a partner. The average household income is more than $155,000. Customers tend to be between the ages of 40 and 65, though J. Jill executives prefer to characterize the appeal as ageless. “This is a woman who can afford to shop many places and cares about looking good,” said Bennett.
Before developing the 3,200-square-foot Short Hills prototype (the average unit is 3,800 square feet), Kramer said she researched J. Jill’s DNA and customers and determined the objective with reviving the brand was to “uncomplicate it.” So she created a store environment with a wide entrance and tall windows for displays and views into the store. Soft grays, winter whites, warm woods and neutrals permeate the space, along with textured pieces such as the rattan basket lighting fixture on the ceiling and marble-topped accessory tables. There’s a platform of mannequins, or “runway,” down the center to draw customers in. On either side are little shops to showcase the collections.
The store is divided into four main zones: for the knit dominant Pure Jill subbrand, which is introducing wovens this spring; for casual weekend attire, denim, corduroy and leggings; for sweater vests, slim pants, ponte pants and Pima cotton shirts and T-shirts, and, in the back of the store, there are petites, as well as the WearEver rayon/jersey collection, which represents the dressiest side of the line. J. Jill also sells plus and tall sizes, but only online. Prices range from $60 to $200.
“The prototype accomplishes more than a standard retail environment, guiding customers to the most important products and making the shopping easier,” Bennett said. “It took a lot of effort to uncomplicate things. That’s how we believe the store experience should be executed. It really reflects what customers love about J. Jill — simplicity, relaxed femininity, nothing that’s overdone or with artifice, or ever going out of style.”
Overall, the J. Jill look is pared down with enough details for some distinction, and an emphasis on outfitting and earthy colors. Seasonless yarns, most often cotton-based, are emphasized, with a minimum of wool content.
“J. Jill stays very consistent. They don’t waiver,” observed Kramer. “The company has always been very clear in its product offering, but it needed to be translated into the total experience of the brand. Now the challenge for J. Jill is staying true to itself and not getting sidetracked.”