Live from ECMOD: N Brown’s Internet Centricity

Oct 26, 2006 12:28 AM  By

London–N Brown Group is as traditional a catalog company as you can get. It has roughly 20 catalog titles, among them J D Williams, 50 Plus, and Simply Be, most of which target women 45-65 years old. About 75% of its revenue is from apparel and footwear, with plus-size clothing accounting for a significant portion. About 1.4 million of its more than 2 million customers run an account with the company, in keeping with the tradition, now dying out, of U.K. catalogs as a means of buying on credit for consumers who didn’t qualify for bank credit cards.

Yet in his session here at the European Catalogue and Mail Order Days conference, N Brown chief executive Alan White declared, “We see ourselves as ultimately being Internet centric rather than catalog centric.” And in fact, in addition to its 20 print catalogs, N Brown operates 42 Websites, including clearance sites and pure-plays.

Like most other catalog companies, White said, N Brown had originally viewed the Web as an ordering channel that could save the company money on fulfillment costs; each Web order costs N Brown 70 pence less to process than each phone order. Then the company realized how the Internet could efficiently enable range extensions. During the past World Cup, for example, N Brown sold £200,000 worth of football shirts, driven largely by the Web. Producing and distributing print pages to promote the full line of football shirts wouldn’t have been as profitable as creating the Web pages had been.

N Brown also created online-only brands. The first was women’s footwear portal Viva La Diva. The site sells N Brown’s proprietary brands as well as items from established brands, and it links to other relevant N Brown Websites. Viva La Diva is now mailing its first print catalog, even as a number of N Brown’s print catalogs have changed their name to reflect the URL address (adding “co.uk” to the title, for instance).

All 42 N Brown Websites share a shopping basket, so that a customer can make purchases at multiple sites and pay for them all simultaneously. In some ways setting up this universal basket was a “nightmare,” White confessed, as the titles have differing shipping and handling pricing. But online orders are 27% higher than phone orders, he said, which he contributes in part to the universal basket.

Not content with its existing systems, N Brown is investing roughly £5 million in improving its platforms and functions, White said. Among the improvements it’s hoping to implement are the ability to contact site visitors who abandoned shopping carts and greater personalization.

Such improvements tie in with what White described as the company’s greatest risk: competition. “We’re seeing all the major players come online,” he said. The Website of supermarket-cum-general merchandiser Tesco, for instance, is beginning to resemble that of Amazon.com, with “stores” selling everything from furniture to flowers to insurance to–oh, yes–food.

“I think they’ll realize that there are things they can do online that they can’t in store,” White said, such as expand its nascent line of plus-size apparel. “We’ve got to pedal very hard over the next few years before more the bigger boys come aboard.”