More than seven years after working at J.Jill as CMO, Claire Spofford returned in February of 2021 to take on the role of CEO.
“I already knew a lot about the customer and how connected and engaged she is with the J.Jill brand – that’s a strong foundation for any business,” Spofford said on the latest Glossy Podcast. “Plus, its premium casual positioning in the market is really relevant now. And there were all the fundamentals of it being a great brand with heritage.”
Indeed, J.Jill is more than 60 years old. But Spofford has moved fast to ensure evolution across the business and adoption of emerging tools and technologies that can contribute to its current growth. Personalization, an optimized store fleet and next-level customer experience – the latter, with the help of a new hire – are among her priorities. In mid-December, J.Jill reported a nearly 30% year-over-year increase in quarterly revenue.
“We’ve made great progress against our [pandemic] recovery this year and have gained some real traction,” she said. “And that gives us a much stronger foundation from which to really drive profitable growth as we go forward.”
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
The importance of stores
“Store traffic continues to recover, relative to 2019 levels, and it has been recovering throughout this year. The stores continue to be a really important part of our strategy. I feel great about the fact that our business model is really balanced; it’s just about 50/50, between brick-and-mortar and direct-to-consumer. And that’s just a nice place to be, from a business standpoint — not overly dependent on either direct-to-consumer or brick-and-mortar. And it gives our customer the optionality to shop where she wants, when she wants and how she wants… We’ve signaled in our earnings that we’ll probably be closing around 20 stores this year. That doesn’t say that retail isn’t important; it’s saying we’re just always optimizing our store fleet, and we see some opportunities for better economics in some of those locations. But in the same breath that we say that, we say that we also see the potential for store unit growth, going forward. So we’re not over-stored, by any stretch of the imagination. We have 260 stores, and we think there’s still potential there.”
The pandemic’s impact on product
“We tend to be comfortable and casual, though we do have more dressy parts of the assortment and less dressy parts of the assortment. We have core franchises that are very comfortable, like denim and knits, and our linen program. And so that’s always been a core tenet of our design and merchandising approach. That said, we have seen real strength in both our Pure Jill and our Fit sub-brands all year, and those have more of an athleisure aesthetic. Pure Jill is the ultimate presentation of what the J.Jill brand stands for: really beautiful fabrications, some sustainable fabrications, some unique techniques, very comfortable. And so she has been responding well to that. And then our J.Jill Fit is a relatively small part of our business, but it’s grown very quickly this year. And we do see additional potential in that area, as well.”
Prioritizing full price
“Historically, we didn’t give our customer a chance to respond to the product at full price enough; we’d come out of the gate with new products already promoted. And we’ve had promotional levels and discount levels that have been much deeper, historically. But we’ve definitely changed that strategy. We’re putting product in front of her on a regular basis — flowing newness in very regularly, much more often than we used to, to keep the focus on what’s new at full price. And we’re not promoting it out of the gate, but [instead] letting her see it and respond to it… And she’s been willing to do that, because she wants to have it. It’s all about the strength of the product.”
“We anticipate that these supply chain challenges and logistics challenges will carry forward into 2022, at least through probably the first half of the year. So that’s something that we have to continue to manage very carefully and try to optimize. In addition, we’re seeing component price increases, particularly in things like cotton. We use a lot of cotton – we use a lot of Supima cotton and some organic cotton… But we’re trying to take the right actions to mitigate what we can there. The best way to deal with these things is to be really clear-eyed about the fact that they’re out there, understand what the potential impact is to your business, and then have the right team in place to tackle the challenges and navigate the turbulent waters.”