Five digital takeaways from N Brown's half-year report

Simply Be, Jacamo and JD Williams parent company, N Brown, reported its half-year results this week, highlighting its progress on a number of digital initiatives including infrastructure change, international re-platforming and the development of a tech incubator.

The catalogue retailing business has been shifting its offering from traditional channels in recent years to become a primarily online player, and the journey involves different ways of working, the introduction of new systems and an ongoing internal transformation strategy impacting multiple areas of the business.

Nivindya Sharma, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, offered her assessment of the N Brown half-year figures, saying: "After a challenging Q1, N Brown regained some of its momentum in Q2 to deliver a cautiously optimistic set of H1 2016-17 results."

With group revenue increasing by 1% to £429.4 million, online penetration growing 5pp to 68% and online revenue hiking up 7.5%, Sharma notes the company's transformation to a digital business model "continues apace".

She added: "With its online business being its most profitable channel, N Brown continues to strategically invest in initiatives such as its innovation incubator JDWorks, via which it will partner with digital start-ups to accelerate its adoption of new ideas and technologies, while maintaining momentum on its 'Fit 4 the Future' systems project which will further enhance its online experience."

Essential Retail has picked out some of the key digital-focused takeaways from this week's results announcement.

1. Digital attitude

In a similar way to how Littlewoods parent company Shop Direct has moved swiftly to become a digital-only retailer, N Brown is moving at pace to be a digitally-led organisation.

"We are first and foremost an online retailer, and this is the most profitable channel for us," the company said in this week's statement, which showed that online revenue increased by 7.5% in the half-year period. Online revenue for what it describes as its Power Brands – JD Williams, Jacamo and Simply Be – was up by 10% and online active customers were up 8% year-on-year.

The proportion of sales which were generated online was 68% during the half, up 5ppts when compared to the same period one year before. Meanwhile, online penetration of new customers, which N Brown said is a leading indicator for the group, was 76% – up 7ppts.

Smartphone and tablet devices account for 70% of online traffic, with smartphone sessions increasing by 42% cementing them as the leading device type for traffic by a significant margin.

Jacamo product revenue was £31.4 million, up 3.3%, with the group saying the brand is "truly digital" and approaching 100% online penetration with "very little paper marketing materials" now produced. It was reported social media engagement is becoming increasingly important to the brand, too.

As the group moves from being an historic catalogue retail business to an online one, it continues to report the performance of its traditional channels. Revenue from this segment was down by 4.2% to £65.2 million, in line with company expectations, and this area of the business is no longer viewed as a significant growth driver.

It does remain relevant for the business, though, with N Brown saying it is committed to its loyal catalogue customers. The publications have been revised to serve a more specific market.

2. JDWorks

Like department store chain John Lewis and fashion retailer Topshop, N Brown has teamed up with innovation specialist L Marks to run a start-up incubator as a method for bringing new ideas into the business.

Launched this summer, the JDWorks initiative is currently in full flow with seven digital start-up companies working with N Brown for a ten-week period. These technologies include artificial intelligence, big data analytics, digitalised personal shopping and 3D virtual fitting, with more news on this programme planned when demo day takes place on 5 December and then when the initiative ends one week later.

Commenting on JDWorks at the time of its launch, Spindler said: "We're in the middle of the biggest business transformation in our 140-year history, moving from being a direct-mail led to a digital first retailer.

"Digital development is a massive focus for us and partnering with L Marks will allow us access to some of the most innovative ideas from start-ups, which by their nature, are very agile. They can react extremely quickly to the opportunities presented by our ever changing retail and technology landscape."

3. Multichannel and credit transformation releases

One part of N Brown's 'Fit 4 the Future' transformation drive centres around the revamp of its credit proposition.

To date, the company has landed Cybersource and PowerCurve, which are seen as key parts of the credit offering, and it recently went live with the replatforming of the US website to SAP Hybris in September.

N Brown recognises there are certain changes to the US site required to ensure the desired customer experience, so it has put back plans to launch a replica platform in the UK. The new timetable will see the launch of the group's first UK site with an integrated credit proposition in the first quarter of financial year 2018 (FY18).

The planned timing of the Simply Be release has moved from Q1 to Q3 FY18. Once this has occurred, the plan is to start moving away from the Fit 4 the Future programme and site rollout will then be moved into normal business activity, reducing run rate costs in the process.

4. Quicker systems

N Brown's planning systems transformation is currently in phase two. Following phase one going live in May, item-level forecasting tools are now being implemented for use ahead of the January sale period and spring/summer 2017 season.

The lead time for N Brown's products has also improved in the last six months, according to this week's report, in part due to sourcing from Europe and, increasingly, the UK. The fastest lead time for a new product has improved from ten weeks two years ago to three weeks in today's market. For repeat purchases, our fastest lead time is now seven days compared to seven weeks just two years ago.

Returns rates have also improved, with the company keen to drive this down through ensuring customers receive the correct product - and are happy with it - at the first time of asking.

5. Asos and third-party partnerships

As part of a drive to reach new customer demographics through selling its brands on partner websites, N Brown will be trialling a capsule collection from its Jacamo range on online fashion house, Asos, from January.

In addition, N Brown continues to open up its platforms to third-party brands, many of which are extended to larger sizes on an exclusive basis. New brands introduced in the latest reporting period include Wolf and Whistle, Vero Moda, Not Your Daughters Jeans, Timberland and Ann Summers.

Offering an overview of N Brown's individual departments, Verdict's Sharma commented: "N Brown's story remains broadly the same, with its Power Brands – especially Simply Be and Jacamo which saw product revenue growth of 6.2% and 3.3% respectively – continuing to drive growth for the company.

"JD Williams's performance remains strong with 11% product revenue growth, but is dragged down by the inclusion of Fifty Plus (including which JD Williams revenue was only up 0.3%)."