NEW YORK TIMES | KATIE WEISMAN
Most Americans have not heard of Jack Wills, but that is something the British sportswear retailer intends to change.
Pete Williams, the London-based brand’s chief executive and co-founder, opened shops on the resort islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket this summer, and a 4,500-square-foot, or 420-square-meter, store is slated to debut in Boston early next month.
With the U.S. economy still teetering, it would seem like a dicey time for a foreign brand to tackle the U.S. retail market. But for a company like Jack Wills, “which has a very specific approach to a college-age clientele,” the timing should be just fine, says Robert Burke, founder of the luxury and fashion consultancy Robert Burke Associates in New York.
“The profile of the customer in these locations fits our brand, which is up market, premium and niche,” Mr. Williams says. “The brand story is all about life while at university, so Boston clearly works as a college town, and the resort towns are where our customer goes on holiday in the summer.”
Mr. Burke notes brands that tightly control their image and their collections, like Ralph Lauren — and Jack Wills — still are seeing sales gains.
For autumn, Jack Wills is stocking women’s wear like tweed riding jackets starting at $379, soft cotton Henley shirts and gathered skirts, while the men’s line ranges from flannel shirts starting at $69 to Fair Isle and fisherman sweaters. It also has home accessories, eyewear, fragrances and limited-edition items like an equestrian jacket selling at $449.
The Wills strategy of opening wholly owned stores also offers “an element of exclusivity,” Mr. Burke says. “If Jack Wills were to be a mall store, it would be much less appealing.” Besides, he adds, the down economy probably means the brand has been able to get the best locations with the lowest rents.
Rose Marie Bravo, the former Burberry executive who is advising the brand, says: “How can they take such a risk? They have a proven success record and have made money doing it this way.”
Last year, turnover at Jack Wills nearly doubled to £42 million, or about $65 million, and 2010 revenues are expected to reach £65 million.
The U.S. expansion has been fueled, in part, by the 2007 purchase of a minority stake in the company by the British private equity firm Inflexion. The investment, an undisclosed sum, also helped introduce the Aubin & Wills collection for customers who “graduate” from Jack Wills and brought Pete Saunders, the former chairman and chief executive at The Body Shop, on board as chairman.
Ms. Bravo describes the Jack Wills strategy as “beguiling and being contrary to all retail and branding principles we have gotten accustomed to.”
Rather than traditional advertising or marketing, the company uses social media to get the word out and has a group of international brand ambassadors it calls “Seasonnaires.”
The team, first deployed at the tony French ski resort of Val D’Isère in 2005, stages special events and gives out free items — like the plastic sunglasses with Jack Wills logos on their fluorescent pink or green arms that were so popular in Martha’s Vineyard this past summer — in exchange for customer information.
Olly Finding, Jack Wills’s international marketing manager, says the Seasonnaires have played a key role in establishing Jack Wills in the right U.S. audience. “When those students get our news via e-mail during the school year, they’ll remember us,” he says.
Rachel Romanowky is one of the Seasonnaires recruited during a 2009 Jack Wills tour at Trinity College in Connecticut, where the 23-year-old is a senior majoring in studio art.
“Trinity is known for being a preppy school, so if students saw the pink and blue Land Rover driving around, passing out free underwear, it immediately piqued interest,” she says.
There are the inevitable comparisons to Abercrombie & Fitch, something the Jack Wills executives loathe — and some industry experts dispute.
“My colleague describes an Abercrombie & Fitch store as ‘teenage angst all bottled up.’ It shows you all the things you aspire to and immediately tells you what you are not,” says Manfred Abraham, the strategy director for the London branding consultancy Interbrand. “Jack Wills is not like that. It invites you to join in the fun.”