Is Bankruptcy Looming for J.Crew?

J. Crew’s Financials Aren’t Good

A Reuters article, dated 11/16/16 is speculating that J.Crew is considering a spin-off of their successful Madewell division, in a likely attempt to raise cash. According to the 3rd quarter 2016 results, J.Crew stores had a 7% sales decline and including Madewell, had roughly $1.5 billion in debt and just $38 million in cash. This is not a healthy place to be.

What happened to one of the best specialty retailers in America? It’s easy to blame mall traffic, but those shoppers are shopping elsewhere and online. By the way, J.Crew has had an exceptional e-commerce site for many years.

They got caught in a maelstrom of changing trends and self-inflicted wounds.

The 4 Biggest Reasons J.Crew is Struggling

Millennial shoppers are the most strapped generation in decades. This largest demographic in the history of the US, is now 16-33. They are the most diverse American generation ever, with a wide range of tastes. Their shallow pockets have given rise to fast-fashion, consignment, rental and vintage apparel sales. I don’t think they aren’t interested in fashion, but clothing is discretionary after rent, school debt, healthcare, transportation and food costs. 

J. Crew had been dogged by inconsistent quality and styling.

J. Crew had been dogged by inconsistent quality and styling.

J.Crew seemed to target this growing base with lower quality materials in an attempt to decrease or hold prices. They also dabbled in trendier silhouettes, adding to the brand confusion. In the classic business you walk a fine line, to offer the expected, with a touch of newness to excite the customer.

Seemingly, in an attempt to be all things to all customers, they alienated fans that saw them as the quality, hip “American” lifestyle brand in the mall. They should have embraced their monopoly as a reliable, premium brand and let the rest of the generic tenants duke it out.

J.Crew had what they thought was a winning formula, cotton/spandex Capri pants, cashmere sweaters and cotton tees. They rested on formulaic laurels while customers were discovering more comfortable, durable and flattering fabrics in athletic apparel from the likes of Lululemon and many others. The rapid adoption of athleisure was lost on J.Crew. They didn’t see that customers were embracing a new casual. They should have evolved some of their assortment to address the exodus, in new fabrications or styling with a J.Crew spin. They just launched, in fall 2016, a “brand-right” athletic apparel collaboration with New Balance, maybe too little, too late. The athletic apparel market has much less elbow room at this point.

There are new kids on the block. At one time, J.Crew was the epitome of the modern prepster. They blended an urbane twist with classic American looks, to define an eclectic, cool state of prep. This wearable market position had a wide audience with fashion and traditional customers.

This late summer 2016 product is what they are know for, classic with a twist.

This late summer 2016 product is what they are known for, classic with a twist.

In recent years, they veered off course with poor quality or trendy items, overly eclectic pairings and strange colors, a road too far for their loyal customer.

As J.Crew confused its customer, they created a vacuum for other rapidly growing, consistent brands to fill. Kate Spade has taken away legions of suburban and urban women of all ages with their whimsical, colorful vibe. Vineyard Vines offers the traditional country club and aspiring wanna-bees,  preppy classics, that really resonate with Millennials. J. McLaughlin attracts the hard-core suburban prepster with uber-traditional, quality clothes. Tory Burch skims off the East Side, preppy customer. Club Monaco speaks to the contemporary, classic customer. These five brands are growing and nibbling at J.Crew’s forgotten following. The pie is only so big and their slice is getting smaller.

There continues to be significant markdowns across categories.

There continues to be significant markdowns across categories.

The stores need a facelift. The above brands have bright, organized new store formats. J.Crew’s shops are cluttered, chaotic and dark and the wood paneling feels very Brooks Brother’s 1992. They don’t highlight their best categories in a focused, shoppable layout. The brand experience needs a serious intervention, a difficult task, with mountains of debt.

None of these opinions are probably news to J.Crew. This is a formidable company with tremendous talent. Maybe they became too insular or content?

This product is a bright spot in the Fall 2016 assortment.

This product is a bright spot in the Fall 2016 assortment.

Amidst the clutter this fall, I’ve seen glimpses of the best of J.Crew. Time will tell, if it’s enough to save them from a painful bankruptcy. It’s not looking good based on 3rd quarter results.

Most retailers never achieve the iconic consumer and fashion industry respect of J.Crew. I’m rooting for them to turn this ship around.

 

Some other posts you might enjoy:

Decoding Millennial Shopping Traits & Habits

Are Sporting Goods & Outdoor in a Death Spiral?

7 Common Fashion Brand Management Mistakes

 

The Dix & Pond Blog, by Stephanie Bernier is the blog of  Dix & Pond Consulting, a Boston-based, company that consults on business strategy, creative direction, brand experience, trends, product development and merchandising. Clients include retailers, apparel, footwear & consumer companies.  CONTACT US TODAY! 

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