Why JD Sports is ahead of the athleisure pack

JD Sports continues to smash expectations whilst rivals struggle. Sales and profits are soaring – something usually put down to successful channelling of the athleisure trend. This is enabling the brand to expand internationally and, at home, outdo rivals such as Sports Direct and Foot Locker. With sporty garb dominating both catwalk and high street, and so many players competing in this territory, what is it that sets JD apart?

Alexander Wang’s collection for Adidas and New York Fashion Week

JD Sports store in Amsterdam

Out of the locker room and into our social lives

As casualwear is increasingly accepted at work and socially, consumers are embracing its comfort and practicality. In 2016, women for the first time bought more trainers than high heels*. Whether heading to the gym, to work or on the school run, yoga trousers and trainers are the easy choices. Far from fading, we think there’s plenty of legs left in athleisure. A big part of this is that the nature of exercise is changing. Once this might have been principally a solo activity, or all about the sport itself, but it’s now a more social, experiential phenomenon. People share workouts online, colleagues come together for spin classes, and charity marathons motivate us to participate. As the self-styled King of Trainers, JD is riding this movement perfectly – combining sports credibility with desirable styling and brands.

*37% of UK women who have bought footwear in the last year (2016) bought trainers, compared to 33% who bought shoes with a heel. Source: Mintel

Winning women

JD’s recent results show that womenswear is where it is excelling. With women aged 35 to 44 becoming the main trainer buyers, the trend is no longer limited to younger consumers, and there’s scope to grow. The key to this has been JD’s choice of brands, with Pink Soda and Beyoncé’s Ivy Park offering femininity whilst remaining accessible and on trend. Neither of these brands is sold in Sports Direct – a brand that also deters this audience by self-identifying as the home of football. JD cuts through the clutter by offering clear navigation to the brands that have true appeal to women.

Ivy Park advertised at Oxford Circus

Trusting in the power of brands

Though athleisure is moving mainstream and towards own-label options, for many this market will always be brand led. JD’s fans know exactly what they want and are prepared to pay the prices. JD’s Ivy Park sliders are £20. New Look offers a faux fur version for £20. It is the brand that has the cachet to win out – particularly amongst tribe-loving teens.

Primark pom-pom trainers at £12, Reebok Club C Gold trainers at £70 and New Look faux fur sliders, £20

Stretching its lead

JD is often thought to closely resemble Sports Direct, but this view now seems outdated. The latter has seen sales decline sharply, it’s under pressure over its working practices and shoppers have grown tired of its warehouse feel. In contrast, JD has invested in stores that look fashion-led and thus a suitable home for the big sports brands. JD has worked hard to build partnerships with these and was first choice for launches such as Adidas Originals NMD and Stan Smith. Meanwhile, its supremacy has been strengthened via exclusives with sought-after names like the latest New Balance 247 offering. JD has the knack of partnering the right celebrities at the right time – witness Stormzy and Hailey Baldwin fronting the Adidas and JD Sports EQT campaign. Foot Locker shares some of this edge and has the added appeal of hailing from America, home of athleisure, but it isn’t able to capture young hearts in the same way as it feels more masculine and narrow in style.

JD also trumps rivals because of the differentiated nature of its business. Its less trend-led outdoor arm is kept separate in the form of Blacks, Millets and Go Outdoors. Sports Direct’s merchandising, meanwhile, throws sports and outdoor together, damaging cachet and go-to status.

JD’s dominance in the athleisure market looks set to continue – its fashion-focused stores and exclusive brands chiming with the times. However, ABA believes there’s still plenty of scope for growth. Firstly, it could move into personalisation; allowing shoppers to add messages and initials to clothes and footwear. Even more promisingly, it could play to the on-trend health and wellbeing movement. Here JD can capitalise by teaming up with exercise and wellbeing gurus to offer unique experiences such as in-store yoga, plank challenges and spinning. Cultivating associations with the doing of exercise as well as the wearing of related clothing would greatly enhance JD’s reputation as champions of athleisure.

JD Sports, Sports Direct