JEYNES JOURNEYS: Kentucky Fried JoJo

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I am in a lull – what is known as a lunch-time lull. We are exhibiting at the world’s biggest ‘everything a mother and baby might need’ Trade Show called ABC Kids Expo which this year is in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

It certainly is the largest Trade Show I’ve ever been to as a buyer and most definitely the largest we will probably ever exhibit at. But we most definitely have a lull and despite being run off our feet from 9am, I find myself sat contemplating what more could we do – is our stand exciting enough? Do we look appealing enough? Have we engaged with ever passer-by? Should we have insisted on appointments to spread out the busy moments?

The more I travel to the States with JoJo, the more I appreciate that no matter how huge this amazing country is, the baby/kids/maternity market is a tricky one and shockingly niche unless you are one of the big guys: GAP, Babies’R’Us etc.

The infant and kidswear business in the States consists of hundreds of small independently owned shops and dozens of larger retail chains but because so many are privately owned it’s apparently very hard to assess the exact size of the industry. Is it doing well – is there space for new brands? This lull is giving me time to investigate the ever changing landscape of kids retail in the US.

Until the mid-80’s, it was all about the Department Store and then GAP came along with GapKids in 1985 selling clothes for age 2 to 12. In 1990 it then opened BabyGap as a separate department in the San Francisco store – today there are 3100 stores globally, most of which have Kids and Baby.

In the early 90’s, Buyers became much more value-orientated in the midst of a minor recession and large retail chains like JC Penney, Target, KMart and Wal-Mart started to focus on kidswear which coupled with a rise in birth rates meant demand for childrens clothing was at an all-time high. The look of childrenswear also changed and became much more casual: denim, sportswear and fleece were in huge demand and companies like Osh Kosh B’Gosh thrived.

Another change occurred: after years of selling other brands, The Children’s Place, along with many, decided to develop their own label of clothes instead. Modelled on adult styles, it became hugely popular with mums and in 2004 it bought the retail division of Disney and is a huge player now with 875 stores. Since the 1990’s almost every successful children’s show or film that has been released has had a line of clothing follow it.

In the mid-2000’s, grown-up, expensive designers in the US also decided to muscle in on the act with brands like Kate Spade, DKNY, Calvin Klein and Polo bringing out mini-me kids ranges. It worked and is on record that the thirst for pint-sized products lifted kids clothing sales by 6% in 2006 and 2007.

By 2010 those same sales dropped by 8% but one stand-out brand, Gymboree, announced plans to open almost 100 new ‘Crazy 8’ stores.

So is there a place for JoJo in America in 2012? Well Wal-Mart still dominate with almost 3,000 stores taking $8billion but the mid/top market is constantly on the lookout for something they can’t find anywhere else. Stylish grandparents approaching their 60’s are an important and lucrative market in the US – they’ve paid for their child’s college tuition, their weddings and their debts and they are now looking to lavish attention on their grandchildren and they particularly love to buy brands that are different. Many new stores opening up here are deliberately marketing to these grandparents.

There is also a great love for all things British at the moment.  Whilst some UK retailers are struggling in the UK, some companies are experiencing superb sales across the pond. All Saints are planning up to 50 shops and Jack Wills has just opened its 3rd store in Boston. Asos is about to open its own US site with Reiss and TopShop all doing well. It’s not just adult fashion – Boden is a huge success story here and has been trading well since 2002 with US sales now accounting for 30% of their turnover.

This has actually taken me 5 hours to finish writing – and not because I’m an exceptionally slow writer but we have been slightly run off our feet. The lull was short lived – it’s called the lunchtime lull because, surprise surprise, everyone was having lunch and I shouldn’t have panicked…

…there clearly is a demand and a gap and love for JoJo in the States – I knew that really – but not just here – I’ve just spoken to retailers from Canada, Venezuela, Hungary and Mexico. JoJo is going to be very busy – no time for lulls.

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