J.C. Penney introducing Canada’s Joe Fresh to U.S. shoppers
By MARIA HALKIAS
NEW YORK — Joe Mimran may be the best vendor partner for J.C. Penney’s bruised CEO Ron Johnson at this point.
The creator of Canada’s successful Joe Fresh apparel line has a similar slow-start story, and he’s betting the brand’s U.S. rollout on Johnson’s vision for turning Penney stores into a collection of branded shops.
Just six years ago, Mimran launched Joe Fresh apparel next to the frozen food aisles in Loblaws, Canada’s largest supermarket chain.
“It would be like having H&M or Forever 21 in Kroger,” said Emily Beggs, an 18-year-old whose family just moved to Dallas from Vancouver. She thinks it’s “awesome” that Joe Fresh followed her to Dallas. “I remember the first time a friend asked me where I got what I was wearing. I said the grocery store. She said, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Penney isn’t a grocery store, but Joe Fresh is one brand that Johnson is counting on to draw more customers.
Joe Fresh women’s apparel shops are opening inside almost 700 of J.C. Penney’s largest stores on March 15. The line will be sold online at jcp.com starting Feb. 24. Penney is trying to attract a broader, younger customer base with new brands this spring and summer in apparel and home.
Mimran is an international fashion figure who created the Club Monaco chain that he later sold to Ralph Lauren Corp. His wife is Kim Newport-Mimran, the head designer for luxury brand Pink Tartan. Mimran said he already had a big “orange” idea in the works when Loblaw Cos. called for help. In his mind, it was to be “a brand that is fresh like citrus and whets your appetite.”
Including Fresh in the name “is a nod to the groceries,” he said.
Joe Fresh has added men’s and children’s clothes and home goods, and is now sold in 345 stores in Canada, almost all still supermarkets. In a short time, it reached the No. 1 or No. 2 Canadian market share position in every soft goods line from baby to women’s.
In late 2011, Joe Fresh opened five stand-alone stores in New York, and it added its Fifth Avenue flagship store in March 2012. Analysts said women in New York are mixing Joe Fresh pieces with designer goods and shopping there with their daughters.
It didn’t start out that way.
“Joe Fresh had some growing pains,” said Toronto-based retail analyst Wendy Evans. “The first incarnation wasn’t very impressive. The quality wasn’t good, but then the implementation got better and better and better.”
There were struggles, and the brand evolved, Mimran said. Being in a supermarket, it had to be “a brand that played across many ethnic groups and demographics.”
To appeal across age groups, Mimran said, Joe Fresh clothes are made with “color, style and point of view without making women a victim of fashion, but letting them make their style.”
“Having 345 stores in Canada is akin to having 3,000 stores in the U.S. from a reach standpoint. We are in the most remote, poorest, ethnically diverse parts of Canada” as well as big cities, he said.
Johnson isn’t getting the time he needs to prove his ideas for J.C. Penney, Mimran said. “In all fairness, people should wait to judge Penney’s transformation. Doing so now is premature.”
Joe Fresh has a “long-term commitment” with the chain, but terms weren’t disclosed. The apparel is already in Johnson’s everyday low price range with dresses priced at $39 and T-shirts at $8. Joe Fresh goods in other categories will be added later this year, he said.
The partnership with Penney “serves both of our strategies extremely well,” Mimran said.
Johnson and Mimran started talking last March at an opening event for the Joe Fresh flagship store, which has 14,000 square feet of space on two levels.
“In the industry, Joe is one of the people I’ve admired for a long time,” Johnson said.
Johnson said customers today “are less loyal than ever,” and he believes they are looking for new places to shop.
Joe Fresh is a “fast fashion” chain, joining brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Mango, also a Penney partner. Johnson’s predecessor, Myron “Mike” Ullman, had estimated that those specialty stores, which offer the latest styles at lower prices, have carved out $30 billion in annual apparel sales, mostly taking business from department stores. This is one way to get some of those sales back. Penney also houses MNG by Mango shops.
Beggs said she’ll go to Penney to shop Joe Fresh, but she’s not sure Americans will get it. “I haven’t found a lot of people who know about them.”
Penney and Joe Fresh have big marketing plans, including television commercials. Joe Fresh is opening a pop-up store in Los Angeles. Mimran is coming to Texas in late March for at least one appearance at Penney’s Stonebriar Centre store.
Special stop back home
Karin Oxtoby, 38, moved to Dallas from Canada in 2008. Like thousands of Canadians living in the U.S., she shops at Joe Fresh on her visits back to see family.
“I think a lot of people gave it a chance early on, at least I did, because of Joe’s background with Club Monaco, which has been so popular back home,” she said. “I buy a lot there, from my workout wear to something I may wear to a club like a gray sequined sweater and sparkly belt that I wore on New Year’s Eve.”
Mothers and daughters shop there because “some of the pieces are trendy but not all,” she said.
Atoyia Quezada, 33, of Dallas said she plans at least one trip back to Canada each year to coincide with end-of-season sales at Joe Fresh.
“I think the T’s are comparable to Banana Republic but at a fraction of the price,” Quezada said. “I’m not a huge Penney shopper, but I absolutely will be going there now.”
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