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Men’s Specialty Stores Seek Something Different

Specialty retailers are posting good sales by focusing on brands, items and experiences that are not found at their larger, highly promotional, competitors.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 01/17/2013

There’s an old adage to finding success in baseball: “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” A similar philosophy holds true for men’s specialty stores who are posting good sales by focusing on brands, items and experiences that are not found at their larger, highly promotional, competitors.

“We don’t have the same things as the majors,” said Mike Zack, owner of the Circa 2000 store in Plano, Tex. “That’s why we work so hard at the shows, to find things that are different.”

Zack and other specialty retailers will converge on New York City later this week to shop for fall at the showrooms and trade shows around town, including the revamped Project, as well as MRket and Capsule. Most retailers report that unlike the larger stores, they had a solid holiday season and managed to steer clear of promotions. As a result, they are optimistic that the momentum will continue and are expressing confidence about placing orders for fall. Tops on their shopping lists are slim suits and sport coats, interesting knitwear and lightweight outerwear.

“Our holiday season was very good,” said Ken Giddon, president of Rothmans in New York City. He attributed it in large part to the company’s relocation into a larger, more modern space. “The new store provided customers with a compelling reason to visit and we were up fairly dramatically,” he said. Rothmans’ second location in Scarsdale, N.Y., was up as well, but only in the low single digits, he said.

But neither store was promotional. “We’ve gotten out of the promotional game,” he said. “We do a little sale merchandise, but we earn our business by curating product and owning our customers. Most things are available everywhere today, including Gilt and My Habit, so we better provide a better shopping experience.”

Through the fall and holiday season of 2012, Giddon said shoppers were attracted to the “cool, interesting lines” that Rothmans recently added, and he will be in search of complementary labels for fall.

“We’re going to be looking for new products and vendors,” he said. “And potential product for our oxymoronic 1,000-square-foot permanent pop-up shop.” He also said he’ll be having discussions about the future of the Mr. Brown by Duckie Brown collection, a capsule collection produced for the store last year. “We’re trying to figure out the next step,” said Giddon. “It sold well and we’re considering wholesaling it.”

Giddon, who said he will walk all of the shows in New York and Las Vegas, said he will “keep beating” the slim-suit drum, and will also be looking for knitwear and other items that have “interesting” twists, such as wool jackets with nylon liners, knit sweaters with leather insets, etc.

Tim Ryan, owner of Harleys in Milwaukee, was also upbeat. “Our holiday season was very good, better than last year, which was better than the year before that. We were up in the double digits,” he said.

He said that a promotion sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission the two weeks before Christmas provided a “real boost to business,” with a series of trunk shows and other events that attracted shoppers. “We did not break price until Dec. 26,” Ryan added. “We always try to avoid going on sale and we were able to accomplish that. We always have a sale corner, but it’s small and usually out-of-season goods. We try to hold to our guns.”

He said that the store has experienced “strong growth in clothing,” both suits and sport coats, which has also given a bump to dress furnishings. “And we even had a good outerwear season, which was surprising considering how mild the weather is.” Top brands include Zegna, Trussini and Schneider of Austria, and AG, Citizens of Humanity and DL 1961 in denim. A Robert Graham shop has also performed well, he added.

At the shows, Ryan hopes to find “better fancy sweaters” as well as “techie things — anything with an additional feature that can be used as a selling tool” such as stretch fabric in jeans or outerwear with unusual fabrics or details.

“I think 2013 should be a good year for retail, and we’re planning for it to be a good year for Harleys,” he concluded.

David Rubenstein of Rubenstein’s in New Orleans, said he’s going to be working the New York market for “unique sport coats — some constructed, some unconstructed,” as well as “new colors in dress and cotton pants. The biggest problem we have are weights, so we’ll be looking for lighter weights,” he said.

In sportswear, top on his list will be “something new in nonleather jackets.” He said his store had some success with lightweight jackets in 2012 and he’s searching for the next iteration. “And we’re going to be looking for a whole new direction in sport shirts,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure what that will be, but that’s what we’re looking for.”

Zack of Circa 2000 also had a good holiday season: “We had a lot of things people wanted.” And although the week between Christmas and New Years was untraditionally slow, “we got our share of what was out there.”

He said the store did well with knitwear and sport coats and newly added women’s wear also performed well. He held price, opting instead to give away pies to anyone spending $100 or more. “If you have what people want, you don’t have to discount it,” he said.

In New York, he said he will scour the shows for vendors and pieces that are not sold at the majors. “If they’re selling department stores, I don’t want it,” he said. That means he has to work harder and search more, but that’s what’s working.

“I think if I can find the right merchandise, customers have pent-up demand,” he said. He will be shopping for both immediates and fall at the shows and looking for knitwear, lightweight outerwear and sport coats in particular. “If I can find some items, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “I’ll go to Chicago and Vegas, too. The shows are an education and if you don’t look at them that way, you’re doing yourself and your customers a disservice.”