Navigating the Sweater Set

What’s going on behind the peacoats, tweed, and polka dots? How to shop smarter at J.Crew.

By Sam Grobart

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN HENDRIX

Take advantage of high-end suppliers: J.Crew’s cashmere comes from “a centuries-old Italian mill.” Specifically, Loro Piana, which makes extremely luxurious cashmere under its own label. Some J.Crew shoes are made by companies that also manufacture footwear for Prada and Gucci.

If you saw something in the catalog that’s not in the store, find the red phone. Every J.Crew has one, and picking it up will connect you directly to a catalog sales rep who can send you what you’re looking for. Best part: Orders placed over the red phone get free shipping.

They run out of things by design. “Other retailers go narrow and deep,” says retail consultant Howard Davidowitz of Davidowitz & Associates. “They’re trying to hit the hot item, get a lot of it, and get it first.” At J.Crew, “you’re not going to see 200 of each item. That creates a constant newness in the store.”

In some places, what used to be a men’s section is now a separate, slightly darker and denser store. “Moving the menswear to a different space gives J.Crew a second brand identity,” says Sharon Love, chief executive officer of retail consultant TPN.

Most of what’s sold at J.Crew Factory stores is made solely for that discount line. Expect lower quality, says the blogger Alexis, who writes J.Crew Aficionada. “Plus, most styles are derivative of regular J.Crew from a few seasons back.”

Some clothing retailers make a practice of only hiring young, extremely stylish staffers. At J.Crew you’re likely to see chic older staffers as well. “They know their customer goes from 20 to 50 and up,” says Love. “Having people work there in that range makes every customer feel like J.Crew ‘gets’ them.”

J.Crew keeps track of customers and shares that data with sales reps both in stores and online. If you’re a serial returner, they’ll know. If you’re notoriously difficult, that will be noted. If you’re a VIP, spending north of about $10,000 a year, you’ll get extra-special treatment.

You can speed up the returns process by bringing back items to any J.Crew store, no matter where they were bought. (This doesn’t apply to J.Crew Factory items.)

The stores are designed to be less dense than other clothing shops. “There’s space there,” says Love. “It’s luxurious compared to the layouts you see in other stores.”

One thing you’ll never see: “Big Sale” signs. “This is very rare,” says Davidowitz. “You regularly see other stores shouting their discounts, but J.Crew keeps its price integrity.”

Although rare, sales do happen. “The best time of the year for overall sales is preholidays in November/December,” says blogger Alexis. “Another good time to get low prices is post-holidays in January. Of course, the selection is a bit more limited at this point.”

Be prepared to pay up. Creative Director Jenna Lyons was quoted last year saying that the retailer has “had to raise the price a little bit because we were offering a much different product than we’d offered before.”

If you’re a college student or a schoolteacher, you get a 15 percent discount just by showing your school ID.

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