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Partners in Prime

Mitchells' strategy involves luxury, loyalty, and lots of "hugging".

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WWD Milestones issue 07/21/2008

Want to sell to Mitchells? Get in line.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

 

The family didn’t become sultans of luxury retail by writing paper for every cashmere-wielding start-up. The stores’ buyers are careful about whom they bring into their space, in part because they have high standards for quality and originality, and are committed to avoiding redundancies in their mix.

 

They’re also fiercely loyal to their vendors. In a retail environment that often feels adversarial (chargebacks, anyone?), the Mitchells approach their vendors with the same open arms that have made their customer service famous. Call it hugging your Giorgio Armanis.

 

“On top of our requirements for exclusive product and margin opportunity, a new line cannot be a duplication of something we already have,” says Dan Farrington, the stores’ GMM of men’s. “It’s not fair to our current vendors. We are not about having one line one season and throwing it out the next.”

 

What they are about is building longterm partnerships with the makers of high-end suits and sportswear that supply their store. Ermenegildo Zegna—Mitchells was among its first customers in the U.S.— has sold to the stores for nearly 20 years; Canali, distributed in the U.S. since the early ’80s, has been with the Mitchells stores for 25 years.

 

“They have a human touch,” says Giorgio Canali, president of the brand’s U.S. operations, adding that the stores rank among Canali’s top accounts. “They are well known for this approach to their customers, but it applies to their vendors as well.”

 

For instance, the company supported Canali as the brand extended beyond tailored clothing, absorbing new categories— including sportswear, accessories and furnishings—into their assortment as the Italian label grew.

 

With Zegna, the three stores’ best performer, the merchandising team has worked closely with the brand to develop product. Mitchells helped develop the label’s outerwear line, Elements, and also had significant input on its range of luxury “upper casual” sportswear. “They have a great understanding of their customers’ needs,” says Robert Ackerman, Zegna’s North American chief. “They have been instrumental in making suggestions to us.”

 

The retailer also programs a full calendar of in-store events with its vendors and hosts an annual golf tournament for its partners. This year vendors will instead be fêted at a dinner that will kick off its 50th anniversary celebration.

The retailer’s co-president, Bob Mitchell, explains: “The number-one thing for us is to try to drive as much revenue with our partners as possible. We’re not looking to make major changes in our vendor mix. We want to work with partners who are responsible and good listeners; that’s how we try to drive those businesses to be dominant.”

 

No surprise, then, that the bulk of the stores’ top 10 suppliers have partnered with the company for more than a decade, or that Mitchells’ top 15 labels account for 75 percent of its men’s business.

 

But establishing long-term relationships doesn’t mean the merchandise mix is stale. Vendors interviewed for this story all cited Bob Mitchell’s relentless drive for innovation and newness. He heavily edits the stores’ lines, wins exclusives from vendors, and adapts the merchandising matrix and floor space as the market evolves.

 

Cumulatively, those changes have been considerable. Back in the Eighties, when Mitchells was just one location, the store was a higher-volume, moderate-price retailer that specialized in lines like J. Schoeneman and a raft of private labels. Suits retailed between $295 and $495.

 

The ascent of the luxury market and Italian clothing brands in particular prompted the store to trade up over time. Today, the bulk of suits in the stores sell for more than $1,000 with some reaching into the tens of thousands for the most exclusive cloths.

 

Classic Italian tailored clothing labels continue to be the stores’ best performers, but shifts in men’s dress opened the door for luxury sportswear brands like Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana. “They [Mitchells] represent our full collection now and do very well with the top of our offering,” says Loro Piana’s U.S. head, Pier Guerci.

 

Tailored clothing is still the anchor, comprising 50 percent of sales, and bolstered recently by a surge in made-to-measure orders.

 

But premium denim and contemporary sportswear, while still representing less than 10 percent of the volume, is growing as their customers’ weekend dress evolves. Furnishings and accessories, including watches and weekend bags, are also driving growth. “As men’s wear has become more segmented by lifestyle, guys are finally being educated about dressing for particular occasions,” says Mitchell.

 

The merchandise at the family’s three doors also bears subtle differences. Richards’ Greenwich location is driven by top-end merchandise and is more classic. More than one-third of the store’s sales stem from luxury items.

 

“That’s our Ferragamo tie guy,” says Farrington. “Our Long Island store, [Marshs], has a faster sensibility. Etro is hotter out there than in the other three stores.”

 

The family’s eponymous Westport store tends to be more casual, he adds; Agave and weekend lifestyle brands sell well there.

 

Across all stores both Mitchell and Farrington agree that a revolution in fit is the next big push for their merchandise offering as the classic customer begins to test more contemporary models. “I see so many men in suits that are too big and baggy and too long,” Mitchell explains. “Our push is getting the customer into new silhouettes and downsizing overall.”

 

Always the savvy businessman, Mitchell notes there’s opportunity in the trend too: “It looks great on them and provides a big opportunity to buy new clothes.”

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