J. Crew Group Inc.
Incorporated: 1947 as Popular Merchandise, Inc.
Sales: $466 million
SICs: 5961 Catalog & Mail Order Houses
J. Crew Group Inc. markets upscale men’s and women’s clothing through distinctive catalogs and a chain of stores. In the mid-1990s, the company was issuing 17 different catalogs each year and operating more than 30 retail stores and 25 factory outlet stores in the United States.
Popular Club Plan—the company from which J. Crew was launched—was founded in 1947 by Mitchell Cinadar and Saul Charles to sell low-priced women’s clothing through in-home demonstrations. By the early 1980s, the owners of Popular Club Plan (which was by then under the direction of Mitchell Cinadar’s son, Arthur) watched as catalog retailers of clothing, including Lands’ End, Talbots, and L. L. Bean, reported booming sales. In an effort to duplicate the success of these companies, Popular Club Plan initiated its own catalog operation.
The company focused on leisurewear for upper-middle-class customers, aiming for a Ralph Lauren look at a much lower price. Accordingly, Popular Club situated its merchandise in the niche between Ralph Lauren, on the high end, and the Limited, on the lower end. In an effort to connote a “preppy” spirit, Popular Club Plan dubbed this operation “J. Crew.” The first J. Crew catalog was mailed to customers in January 1983. Instrumental in orchestrating the J. Crew look was Arthur Cinadar’s daughter Emily Cinadar (later Woods), who joined the company after graduating from college.
Over the next several years, J. Crew’s catalog evolved a distinctive look featuring young, attractive models having fun in a variety of appealing settings. The pictures in the catalog appeared to be photographs from a house party of old friends, all of whom happened to be gorgeous and outfitted by J. Crew.
Their catalogs often showed the same garment in more than one picture, worn by different models and coordinated with other products. As a result, customers could get a sense of how the garment looked on the body, how it hung and draped, and how it could be used with various items of clothing. In addition, J. Crew included close-up shots of the fabrics from which its products were made, helping to validate its claims of quality.
J. Crew closely controlled the production of its catalog, selecting images from more than 8,000 rolls of film shot each year and having all catalog copy written in house. Catalogs with more than 100 glossy pages were mailed to customers 14 times a year. The company also maintained an in-house design staff to develop its products and carefully controlled the manufacturing process, hiring factories to produce garments to its specifications.
Throughout the mid-1980s, sales from J. Crew’s catalog operations grew rapidly, as the catalog retailing industry as a whole experienced strong growth. During this time, J. Crew continued to refine its presentation and increase the number of people receiving its catalog. “Growth was explosive—25 to 30 percent a year,” Cinadar later recollected in the New York Times. Annual sales grew from $3 million to more than $100 million over five years.
With the success of its first catalog operation, J. Crew launched a second catalog program in 1985. Dubbed “Clifford & Wills,” this operation sold women’s clothing that was more affordable than the J. Crew line. In 1986 Emily Cinadar was promoted to president of the J. Crew operation.
Despite the phenomenal success of J. Crew, and the prominent profile that the J. Crew catalog soon attained, internal management of the company was less than smooth. Both Cinadars, father and daughter, were reputed to be difficult to work with, and employee turnover was high. In 1987 the company suffered a setback when two high-level executives left to start their own catalog operation, Tweeds, which drew on the lessons learned and example established by the J. Crew operation. With a more European look, Tweeds was soon competing successfully with J. Crew.
Although J. Crew’s sales continued to be strong throughout the fall season of 1988, when the company reaped annual sales of $100 million, by the end of the 1980s growth was beginning to slow in the catalog market as a whole. By 1989 rumors had begun to circulate in the apparel industry that J. Crew was in trouble and that the company might be up for sale.
Though these rumors were vociferously denied, it was clear that J. Crew would have to implement changes to sustain its vigorous growth. To begin with, the company undertook a number of steps to focus its attention on its most important and profitable units. In 1989 the company changed its name from Popular Merchandise, Inc.—a holdover from the 1940s, when the Popular Club Plan was the company’s main business—to the J. Crew Group Inc. In February 1989, the company announced that the Popular Club Plan would be sold to International Epicure, a direct-marketing food company. With the proceeds from this sale, J. Crew planned to help finance a broadening of its J. Crew enterprises, and to compensate, in part, for the fact that its operations were less solidly financed than those of many of its catalog competitors.
J. Crew also planned to expand into retail. In opening stores, J. Crew hoped to capitalize on the strong brand identity it had established through its catalogs, and also to tap the significant number of customers that did not shop through catalogs (company research suggested that 60 percent of clothes buyers did not shop by mail, and that only 15 percent of apparel customers bought a significant number of items from catalogs).
To avoid compromising its existing catalog operations, J. Crew set up its new retail branch as a separate unit within the company. The Cinadars hired Arnold Cohen, who had previously worked for Gucci, to head a new management team that would be in charge of a chain of J. Crew stores. The start-up staff for this arm of the company, dubbed J. Crew Retail, numbered 22. In order to minimize cannibalization of its catalog operations, J. Crew planned to make 60 to 70 percent of the goods offered in its stores unavailable through its catalogs. In March 1989 the first J. Crew retail outlet opened, in the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. With four thousand square feet of selling space, this store was designed to appeal to the many members of the New York financial community who frequented the seaport. The company planned to open 45 stores in its first push into retail.
Five months after the opening of its first store, J. Crew added two new catalog lines: “Classics” and “Collections.” “Collections” used more complicated designs and finer fabrics to create dressier and more expensive items, while “Classics” featured clothes that could be worn both to work and for leisure activities, and acted as a bridge between the products J. Crew had originally offered and its “Collections” items. With these lines, J. Crew hoped to further differentiate itself from its catalog competitors.
In the fall of 1989, J. Crew opened three new stores, each larger than the first, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; and Costa Mesa, California. J. Crew chose these locations because they were in markets where catalog sales had historically been strong. Each of these openings was supported by print ads in local newspapers and magazines that featured images from the catalogs, with a line indicating the store’s location. In November 1989, J. Crew also launched a national magazine advertising campaign. By the end of the year, this had helped to produce retail sales of nearly $10 million.
Despite 1989 revenues that were estimated at $320 million, J. Crew suffered a setback when its agreement to sell its Popular Club unit collapsed at the end that year. In addition, rumors circulated that the company’s Clifford & Wills low-priced women’s apparel catalog was doing badly. J. Crew began to delay payments to its suppliers and lay off staff members.
J. Crew embarked on an attempt to win greater sales from its existing catalog customers, noting that its expansion was limited by the relatively small segment of the population that served as its customer base, estimated at 7 to 10 percent of the population. J. Crew’s target customer was young, educated, and affluent, with a median age of 32, some post-graduate education, and an annual household income above $62,000. “I don’t know if there are 20 people left in the country who are prime J. Crew prospects who haven’t seen the catalog 10 or 20 times,” Cinadar went on. “So… I think most increases will come from increased sales per person.” To bring this about, J. Crew broadened its line of merchandise even further, adding sleepwear, outerwear, working clothes, and versatile jackets. In this way, the company hoped to supplement its sales of low-priced items—such as its most offerings, t-shirts and socks—with higher-ticket purchases.
J. Crew saw revenues reach $400 million in 1990, but reported that its four existing stores had not yet started producing enough profits to cover their overheads. “We’re working on improving merchandise selection and we’re working on strengthening the visual image,” J. Crew president Arnold Cohen told the New York Times. The next phase of store openings included outlets in Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Portland. The company scaled back its plans for opening retail stores from 45 stores to 30 or 35.
In early 1991 the company hired a director of new marketing development and began efforts to expand their sales across the Canadian border. In an effort to simplify the complications of doing business internationally, J. Crew “Canadianized” its catalogs, including information on the payment of taxes and duties, the Canadian Goods and Services Tax, and customs requirements.
In April 1991, J. Crew mailed 75,000 J. Crew catalogs and 60,000 Clifford & Wills catalogs to potential customers in Ontario. Response rates to this effort were slightly lower than in the United States, but each order, on average, was higher. Clifford & Wills received an especially warm response, and a second mailing of 120,000 copies of this catalog took place in September 1991. The company benefitted from the relative paucity of catalog retailers in Canada, which made its brochure stand out better, but also made collecting names of potential customers much more difficult.
In the following year, J. Crew intensified its push into international markets by hiring a new vice-president for international development. The company already mailed hundreds of catalogs to customers in Japan and Europe, most of whom had become acquainted with J. Crew while traveling or living in the United States. In early 1992, J. Crew conducted a feasibility study to explore avenues for marketing its goods to customers overseas on a larger scale.
Despite the economic recession at home, J. Crew racked up $70 million in retail sales in 1992, a strong increase from previous years. The company discovered that opening stores did not significantly hurt its catalog sales; in New York, in fact, opening a store increased catalog sales.
In addition, J. Crew moved aggressively into the Japanese market. In February 1993, the company completed an agreement with Japanese retailers Itochu and Renown, Inc., to open 46 stores there, with estimated annual sales of $68 million.
In March 1993 J. Crew began test-marketing a J. Crew catalog in France. In November of that year, the company signed an agreement with a French mail order firm, called 3 Suisses International, to launch a J. Crew catalog operation in France. Under the agreement, J. Crew’s French partner would buy J. Crew products directly from the company’s manufacturing subcontractors around the world, so that French customers would receive exactly the same merchandise as American buyers. The French catalog was slated to be mailed less frequently than the American book, which was by this time being sent out 17 times a year, but the frequency was expected to increase over time. The agreement also included a retail component, giving the French company the right to open J. Crew stores in countries throughout Europe.
Popular Club Plan; Clifford & Wills.
Chevan, Harry, “J. Crew: Building on Its Brand,” Catalog Age, September 1993, p. 7.
Graham, Judith, “Cataloger Tried Retail Units,” Advertising Age, August 21, 1989.
Haggin, Jeff, and Bjorn Kartomten, “Product Photography: Glamour or Benefit?” Catalog Age, June 1989.
“J. Crew, CW Score High in Ontario,” Catalog Age, October 1991, p. 8.
“J. Crew to Launch Catalog in France with 3 Suisses,” DNR, November 30, 1993.
Kamen, Robin, “New Opportunity Seen Overseas by J. Crew’s VP,” Crain’s New York Business, March 16, 1992.
Kleinfeld, N. R., “Even for J. Crew, the Mail-Order Boom Days Are Over,” New York Times, September 2, 1990, p. 5.
Morgenson, Gretchen, “Storm Warnings,” Forbes, December 11, 1989, pp. 140–48.