Breaking the mold: There’s never been, nor will there ever be again, a clothing buyer like Jim Zimmer of Men’s Wearhouse.
Conventional wisdom has it that you never mix business and friendship. Jim Zimmer, Men’s Wearhouse’s highly respected tailored clothing buyer who’s been with the store for the past 35 years, has never been great with conventional wisdom.
“To me, it’s all about doing business with friends,” he maintains. “Most people in our industry would portray an adversarial relationship between retailers and vendors: Vendors are the enemy trying to make money off of us; we’re the greedy merchants trying to buy goods for as little as possible. Most would say that the better the price, the better the buyer has done his job…
“I’ve never felt that way. And while there are those in my company who joke that they’d like to trail me in the market with a wheelbarrow, picking up the money left on the table, it’s actually just the opposite: I’ve been the one with the wheelbarrow scooping up all those dollars…”
Men’s Wearhouse suppliers agree wholeheartedly. Says Gary Brody of Marcraft, typical of other vendors: “Jim’s word is his word and he always makes good on it, which is why he always gets the best possible deals.”
What’s more, not only has Jimmy created win-win relationships with his vendors, he’s also, in a very profound sense, brought the tailored clothing industry together in a way that’s non-existent in other industries. “I rarely have dinner in the city without several of my vendors and everyone seems to truly enjoy the dynamic,” he relates. “It creates a camaraderie that’s highly unusual among competitors and it’s made us more of a family than an industry. I’ve been able to reach out to almost all of my suppliers, some of whom are now my closest friends, and that’s been a big part of my success.”
Of course, Zimmer is well aware that success in the clothing business takes more than a charming personality. “As much as I believe that relationships have helped get me the best prices, I never lose sight of the fact that as the largest clothing retailer in the country, we’re deserving of the best prices. At Men’s Wearhouse, we never cancel an order, we don’t return goods (unless they’re flawed), we don’t ask for markdown money. Because we get such great prices, there’s really no room for these things. What’s more, we bring cost savings to the manufacturer not only through scale but by saving them finance costs. We take in goods as soon as they’re ready, sometimes the day they’re manufactured…”
According to industry estimates, Zimmer has personally purchased a good 40 million suits sold at Men’s Wearhouse over the years (these days, sleeves sold annually at MW exceed three million a year…). And according to Zimmer, business in 2011 has come back strong. “Despite the many challenges surrounding cost increases this season, I’ve never in my career written more business in a two day period than I have these past two days (right after Easter). It was tough in ’08 and ’09 but business is clearly back; we’re getting some serious traction. This year we’re having the largest suit sales in our history, and market share numbers are in our favor, both in units and in dollars.”
Admitting that his heavy early buy (his spring ’12 orders were virtually complete by end-April) was largely to lock in prices in a highly volatile market, Zimmer touts the importance of creativity in today’s tailored clothing business, “something I like to think is my specialty. Vendors are worried that if they charge fair value for their product, they’ll lose business, so they’re coming up with all kinds of new concepts that I work with them on.”
Becoming more promotional to beat the competition at its own game, Zimmer never loses sight of MW’s core strengths: professional sellers, professional tailors, a balance of national and private brands. “We never used to be promotional: we’d price everything fair value; we’d have one sale a year the day after Christmas. Now, our suits are mostly buy one, get the second for $100 which, for the customer, is better than fair value when he buys two suits. Still, it’s tricky to promote it that way.”
While Zimmer is careful when discussing the competition, his frustration is apparent. “Their business is driven by marketing. Their sales associates are not highly trained; they’re selling a garment that’s always marked down, that was never intended to sell at the ticket price. When they first started this excessive promoting, I was sure the customer would ultimately figure it out and stop buying. For some reason, it hasn’t happened: their 2010 earnings were great; they continue to open new stores. Apparently, customers perceive that they’re getting a deal.”
Still, Zimmer is determined to give his customers not the perception of a good deal but the reality. His clothing mix these days (60 percent to total store volume) is half national brands (about a dozen top names), half private label (98 percent of MW private label is sourced directly from Mexico, Asia, Italy; only 5 to 10 percent is coming from China). Ticket prices on suits range from $199 to $799 (with plans to exit the top layer which contributes only 1 percent of the business). Sizes range from 35 short to 60 regular, and up to size 70 online.
A good 80 percent of MW’s clothing business is “dark and dressy” (vs. seasonal/earth tones), and almost all suits are two-button models with somewhat narrower lapels. (At least half of all suits are solids.) About 5 to 10 percent of suits are now SB peak lapels, another 5 to 10 percent vested, with virtually no traction in DBs. Within suits, pants are 60 percent flatfronts, 40 percent pleats. Seasonal fabrics comprise 5 to 10 percent of the mix in suits, 35 percent of sportcoats in the fall.
In fact, sportcoats are more heavily private label than suits since Zimmer feels market offerings are often less strong. His ratio of suits to sportcoats is 2.5 to 1 in units, 5 to 1 in dollars. Suit separates, a relatively new venture for MW, are generating 25 percent of clothing sales, despite the fact that they’re broken up on the selling floor: coats merchandised on coat racks, pants on pant racks. “It’s an unusual way to do it but we don’t have the space. And because we have in-store tailors, we do the pant separates with open bottoms, meaning we need fewer SKUs. But even without pushing it, separates are a growing part of the business. We sell 1.2 or 1.3 to 1, tops to bottoms (higher in solids, lower in stripes).”
[Editors note: Zimmer points out that comparative statistics can be misleading, especially with separates. If he buys 800 coats and 1,200 pants, he counts it as 800 units ("It's always about the coat") whereas other stores might consider it 2,000.]
Asked about his buying style, his strategy when in the market, Zimmer (widely known as a very aggressive buyer) admits to a less-than-scientific approach. “I know Scott [Norris, EVP/GMM] would cringe to hear me say this but to me, it’s kind of like a carnival game. You know the one where you pound the weasels on the head with a mallet and when one goes down, another pops up? Well I buy what I perceive we need and those orders generate new needs. When I fill certain holes with my last buy, other areas pop up that need attention. Yes I read all the computer reports, but only a handful matter to me. In fact, I’m still on the old computer system whereas the rest of the company has upgraded…”
Zimmer’s very strong merchandising instinct precludes the need for much testing. “I don’t like to test,” Zimmer confides. “I generally believe that if something works somewhere, it will work everywhere (of course to varying degrees). We’re so big today (about 600 MW doors); it takes so many units to make a statement in all stores that I tend to buy aggressively. (Of course other areas in the store test regularly.) And with men’s clothing business so slow to change, it’s not like I’m taking major risks… With most of the business in black and charcoal, stepping out for us might be a lighter shade of gray (which in fact is doing better than taupes and tans). Still, my goal is always to spice it up.”
On sizable cost increases on fabrics, Zimmer is reflective. “Yes prices will be up but realistically, the first ticket is less important today since we discount from the back end. At the end of the day, my strategy for 2012 is to get an additional $10 to $20 per suit, $10 to $15 per sportcoat. This would be somewhere between a 4 to 8 percent increase for the consumer. And we’ll achieve that through shifts in merchandising.”
Some of these shifts involve moving to blended wools. “Adding 10 to 15 percent poly keeps the suit from wrinkling,” he explains. “Although I’m a purist and prefer all wool personally, some of the new blends feel even nicer than pure wool! (And some of the all wools are up $20 to $40 retail per suit…) We’re also experimenting with techno-fabrics that retain heat and cold. And we’re launching a traveler’s suit in which the recovery is built into the fabric rather than applied to it; this gives it a better hand and is also eco-friendly. Bottom line: the future of clothing is the fabrics.”
And the future of Men’s Wearhouse? With Jim Zimmer buying clothing coupled with the strong management of Scott Norris and Doug Ewert, we’re betting on significant growth ahead.
The Zimmer Factor
Jim grew up in Westchester, and went to the University of Miami (“I left twice before I finally graduated…”). His father Robert was a raincoat manufacturer, ultimately evolving into leisure suits and then tailored clothing. In 1973, his father and brother George opened a little men’s clothing store in Houston. “I was in college at the time,” Jim recalls. “I’d always worked for my dad during summers, so while I never planned a career in clothing, it was a place to start.” (That said, he’s now in his 35th year at Men’s Wearhouse, the last 25 as the top clothing merchant.)
Asked if the Zimmer name is an asset or liability, if there isn’t extra pressure on him as the founder’s brother, Jim insists that it’s all good. “There’s no downside, no pressure; it’s only an asset. George has always left me to do my own thing with virtually no interference. And although I don’t see him as much these days, I know he’s proud that I’ve done a pretty strong job for the company. In fact, my favorite years at the company were in the ’80s and ’90s when George and I shared an office in California. He was more accessible then; I could walk into his office day or night; it was a great time.
“You know, despite George’s rockstar image, he’s really very grounded. He’s a passionate speaker and motivator who’s concentrated his career on dealing with the people in the stores, mostly sellers and tailors. He’s always focused his energy on ensuring that these people are taken care of; he respects them so much. In fact, he starts almost every meeting and holiday party with a shout-out to the tailors; they’re always first and foremost. In the beginning, George would also write and shoot the commercials but even then, he left the merchandising to the merchants, which is a little unusual in this business. In any case, I wouldn’t want him doing my job and I certainly couldn’t do his.”
Interestingly, the Zimmer who most impacted Jim’s life was his mom. “She passed away many years ago; she smoked and drank (which probably killed her) and was a real tough lady. But through her toughness, she maintained some important values. She instilled in me an incredible respect for other people, something I try to incorporate into my life everyday.”
As for his own family, Jim’s got three daughters he’s very proud of (Trystan, Courtney and Jayde) but he acknowledges that, as a divorced father with daughters, it can be tough. “There are always issues, but now that they’re older, we’re bonding in new ways, which is really wonderful. I am very lucky.”
Click here to read what Men’s Wearhouse EVP/GMM Scott Norris had to say about Jim Zimmer.