Why JD Sports has pulled ahead of the chasing pack

10pm, BBC 1. Huw Edwards has his most serious face on. Retail’s long-running difficulties are now headline news. “UK high streets in crisis as more big names disappear.”

And yet this doesn’t quite tell the whole story. With 385 stores in the UK and Ireland, JD Sports remains ambitious about growth at home and abroad. Having reported a strong Christmas – and with like-for-like sales up more than 5% in the 48 weeks to 5th January – its success looks set to continue.

At ABA, we’ve spent years investigating the feelings behind consumer behaviour – knowing it’s the brands that connect on an emotional level that win. The result has been our 5Drivers model, which pinpoints the feelings brands should target. In JD Sports’ case, this has uncovered the secrets behind its gloom-busting performance.

Objects of Desire

The athleisure phenomenon has understandably been very good news for JD Sports. It’s seen casualwear become more acceptable at work and socially, with consumers valuing its comfort and practicality. However, there is also a deeper passion at play here. The thirst for the latest design or the hottest brand is a perfect example of our Desire Driver in action. The product becomes fetishized beyond its functionality – and, of course, can project desirability onto the wearer.

JD Sports cleverly heightens this sense of seductive allure by offering exclusives from premium brands such as Nike and Adidas. The effect is intensified further by the refusal to discount, which suggests products are in great demand and shouts out ‘If you want me bad enough, you’ll pay.’

The Longing to Belong

JD Sports is the beneficiary of another key feature of the athleisure trend – its supremely natural fit with contemporary influencers. Using the hashtag #IAMJD, it’s able to gain reflected glory from relatable ambassadors. Here the retailer leverages the Belonging Driver; fostering the idea this is a cool world to belong to populated by opinion formers with whom you can share attitudes and looks. The relationship is strengthened by TV, social media and in-store ad campaigns, and the brand has been brilliant at communicating diversity via its portfolio.

Immersing, transporting

The final card this retailer is playing so deftly relates to our Immersion Driver. When ABA visited the recently opened Leeds store, it was evident the brand has created a space that plunges shoppers into the world of sportswear. As you enter you are instantly struck by cues signaling ‘premium but fun’. Everything is designed to prompt temptation in a playful way. Prominent branding, a bold colour palette, and effective use of glass announce this is a different kind of environment. Digital screens dotted around the ground floor bring products to life and create a dynamic atmosphere. The layout defies sports store conventions – an open plan providing plenty of room to explore. Take the escalator down and you remain immersed – mannequins being ideally placed to showcase key pieces and whet the appetite for what’s to come.

It’s not all perfect. Some visual merchandising is sprawled across the floor and some brands seem haphazardly placed. Navigation can feel tough – and anything that forces the shopper to think will snap them out of the seamless experience that does so much to build rapport with product and brand.

However, overall, the new Leeds flagship is highly impressive and a great example of why JD Sports is flourishing whilst so many wilt. If the brand builds on this store’s ability to chime with key emotional drivers, it should remain one athletic step ahead of rivals.

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