UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Building the consumer enterprise


UNC Kenan-FlaglerTwo years ago, Jaggi Singh took a risk.

He acquired the newly relaunched Members Only brand, popular in the 1980s for its bomber-style jackets, after his 15-year-old son told him the jackets were becoming cool again.

In an industry that relies increasingly on mass production, a niche brand like Members Only has huge opportunity for growth, Singh said.

Singh spoke at the third annual UNC Retail Conference on Feb. 28 organized by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Retail Club to bring together students and professionals to discuss changes and challenges in retail.

Brian Fauver (BSBA ’04, MBA ‘011), president and CFO of Southern Season, moderated a panel about building the consumer enterprise with:

  • Singh (MBA ’90), president and CEO of Members Only
  • Bill Aull (BSBA '02), associate principal at McKinsey & Company
  • David Wagner (BSBA ’00), vice president of strategy and integrated planning at VF Corporation

“For brands that are just getting known, it’s important to be known for a core product,” Wagner said. “You really do want to have an iconic product. It’s hard to start out broad.”

But once that brand is established, newness is critical, he said. VF Corp — which owns dozens of brands such as Vans and Wrangler — develops new lines twice a year, and Members Only is looking to expand beyond jackets.

Online platforms give retailers the opportunity to test out new products, Aull said. “There’s a lot less risk online, so a lot of retailers will test a product or brand out online before deciding to put it in the stores,” he said.

The growth of social media and mobile products also present new challenges for retail companies. “The landscape has changed,” Singh said. “It all boils down to social media. Growth has been on the web.”

Focusing on the customer and the desired effect is especially important in branding, Wagner said. “How you brand is about being really clear about what kind of emotional response you’re trying to get out of someone.” VF Corps’ branding of The North Face, for example, is built around the idea of pushing internal boundaries.

This type of niche strategy has worked well for Members Only, said Singh. In the past year online sales have quadrupled, he said. The company has amassed a celebrity following and its jackets are sold in stores like Bloomingdale’s.

“For the last two years, it’s just been about knocking down doors,” he said. “We’re making Members Only relevant again.”

Conference sponsors were Tanger Outlets, Members Only, the Global Business Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Bronto, Burt’s Bees, Deloitte, Lowe’s, Merch Success, Nordstrom, Rivercrest Realty Investors, Southern Season, VF Corp and Vietri.