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Men’s Wear CEO Summit: Retail Opportunities

The men’s wear shopper is back, but the recession has changed him.

Robert Burke, Russ Patrick, Bob Mitchell, Tom Ott and Kevin Harter.
Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/07/2011

The men’s wear shopper is back, but the recession has changed him. Instead of buying the same old, same old, he’s seeking newness in fit and label, but he’s still holding back a bit and not purchasing at the same levels he did before the financial crisis.

That was the message from a roundtable on Retail Opportunities, which was moderated by Robert Burke, president and chief executive officer of Robert Burke Associates.

“The men’s business is coming back, but the customer has changed,” said Russ Patrick, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for Neiman Marcus Group. “He’s more thoughtful about his buying habits. He’s asking a lot more questions and is more educated and thoughtful about buying.” He said the customer is “demanding newness. The worst thing for him to see is what was there before.”

At Saks Fifth Avenue, it’s the younger, more contemporary customer who has been the first to return, according to Tom Ott, svp and gmm of men’s. In fact, he said, while sales of traditional men’s product fell off most during the recession, “the contemporary and designer businesses were less worse.”

Bob Mitchell, co-president of the Mitchells Family of Stores, said although the customer is coming in less often, his business has “seen 15 to 16 months of nice growth.” And when he does come in, he’s returned to the high-end luxury product that he purchased before the downturn. “They would rather buy more of the best [merchandise], even if they buy less of it.”

Kevin Harter, vice president of fashion direction for men’s at Bloomingdale’s, agreed that the men’s customer has returned, but noted that there has been a marked change in his spending habits. “Now, 84 percent of men make their own decisions,” he said, meaning that retailers can “market to guys. It makes us better retailers and better at our game.”

Mitchell said one of the things drawing men into stores is the new silhouette. Acknowledging that men “don’t like change,” and often return time and again to the same brands, he said stores should tout the “new fit from their old friends to make them comfortable.” At the same time, he believes men are “open to new brands,” and will mix in a few new vendors if they’re presented properly.

Harter agreed, saying Bloomingdale’s tends to “nurture the brands we already carry,” but “balance” those with new labels.

Ott believes there is an opportunity for new brands to flourish and expects there will soon be a “changing of the guard” as some of the more-established brands lose ground to what Harter described as a “young pool of designers.”

He added that any brand trying to break into the men’s arena needs to “offer a distinct point of view and message.” He also encouraged brands to come to the stores and meet the shoppers so they’re well-versed in what today’s customer is seeking.

Mitchell urged vendors to work with the sales associates in the stores to get them behind the brand. “That’s the cheapest, most effective way to market your brand,” he said. “You can connect with the customer through the sales associates, who are your champions on the selling floor. That’s how you can get your first lift.”

The same can be said of private label offerings, a big initiative for many large stores today.

Calling it a “major underpinning of our strategy,” Ott said it is essential for retailers to offer shoppers a differentiated point of view. The Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection, which launched in 2009, is the largest brand in the men’s store, and was launched to fill “white space” that the company saw for men’s wear with an international classic sense of styling. “We really went after it during the recession.”

At Neiman’s, Patrick said the store uses private label “when we fall in love with specific product,” but stressed the company’s mission remains “building big businesses with the best designers.”

Online selling was also a topic of discussion. Patrick said the Neiman’s shopper often researches products online before shopping in the stores and is a “huge driver” of the men’s volume. Harter said the Internet provides an “editorial voice” for the company’s offerings, but many still want to “feel, touch and taste” the product in the store. He said the goal is to create a “synergy” between the two channels.

The panel was in agreement that sales of men’s wear will continue to strengthen in the future.

“The future looks bright for men’s wear,” said Patrick, who said he expects steady growth as men dress up again and shop to complete a more “polished” and “finished look.”

For Bloomingdale’s, attracting a younger customer will be key to future success, Harter said. “The contemporary tailored clothing business is one of our fastest growing,” he said, adding that it is essential that retailers learn how to “engage” this younger guy. The secret? “Technology, technology, technology,” he said, noting stores should install Wi-Fi and “wire” their sales associates to attract these shoppers.

A question from the floor about the future of premium denim evoked a range of responses. Mitchell said denim continues to grow steadily. “We sold a lot during the recession and it will continue to be an important part of the mix.”

Harter said Bloomingdale’s is selling the same number of units, but the prices are lower than they were a few years ago. Patrick said he has reduced the number of units he bought, but the quality has remained the same.

One big growth area for all the stores, however, is accessories. Noting that products such as pocket squares or tie bars “finish off the look,” Mitchell said today’s man is more educated about his appearance and ready to buy just the right piece to complete his wardrobe.