Clothing brand Boden is planning a further push into the US, joining an increasing number of UK retailers that are having success in a market that has historically proved difficult.
The upmarket women and childrenswear brand already makes more sales in the US than it does in the UK and is growing faster there. In the first half of 2022, its US sales were up 10 per cent at constant exchange rates and customer acquisitions grew by almost half.
Glen Senk, executive chair, told the Financial Times there were major opportunities to sell more womenswear in the US and to become less dependent on catalogue marketing.
“The offering right now is consistent with the UK but there is an opportunity to localise it,” said the US retail veteran who last year became the third outsider to run the family-owned business. “And there are aesthetic nuances between parts of America just as there are in Europe”.
Senk is best known for his 18 years at Urban Outfitters, where he turned Anthropologie into a billion-dollar brand. He has known Johnnie Boden, the Eton-educated former stockbroker who founded Boden in 1991, for many years.
He sees Anthropologie as a guide to what Boden could achieve. “If you look at that and J Crew, they are very close to Boden and yet they are both $1bn brands”.
Boden has said it aims to double group sales over the coming few years, though it has not set specific targets for the US. It will shortly file accounts at Companies House showing revenue in 2021 reached £357mn ($408mn), up 7 per cent on the previous year as shopping habits began to normalise since the pandemic. Full-year profits rose 2 per cent, reflecting higher return rates and increased shipping costs.
A self-confessed Anglophile, Senk said Boden’s quintessential Britishness played well in the US market. “The fact that we are a British company is very important. Americans love the UK, there’s long been a fascination with British music, fashion, art and theatre.”
The key to growing was “knowing what to globalise and what to localise” and understanding cultural preferences, he said. “Our best-sellers are our best-sellers everywhere. The long tail is where the differences lie, but you have to get that right to maximise your sales.”
US consumers prefer to show their arms than their legs, and are less sniffy about wearing synthetic fibres, he noted, while variations in climate are much wider. “Around half of Americans live in warm weather year-round. They don’t regard swimwear as being just for holidays.”
The US has often been a daunting market for UK retailers and there have been high-profile failures such as Tesco’s ill-fated Fresh ‘n Easy US venture and Marks and Spencer’s misadventures with Brooks Brothers.
But more recent expansion there has been effective; more than a third of Watches of Switzerland sales now come from the US, while WHSmith has been making inroads into the US travel market and the country is the fastest-growing location for retailer Primark.
Senk said Boden would retain its famous printed catalogues, but that they would play a smaller role in its marketing. “There has been a shift in the way people buy,” he said. “Educated upper middle class people generally start their journey on a smartphone.”
He added that he had “committed to spend two or three days a week for two or three years” spearheading the push into the US. Boden remains creative director.
“Johnnie may want to sell some or all of his stake at some point,” Senk acknowledged. “But that is not on the table now.”