Norton Ditto finds more success just outside of Houston
Before I can ask Dick Hite my first question, the proud owner of Norton Ditto exclaims, “The Woodlands store is on fire! We’ve seen 20 percent increases each month since it opened two years ago.” Hite attributes much of that growth to the location, a young, affluent area 45 minutes outside of Houston (100,000 people, average age 38.8 with 17 percent at a household income of a quarter-million dollars or higher).
Hite opened the store with a clear strategy. “We selected influential people in the area to be on our board of advisors, and that’s given us an entry into the community. We want to be a Norton Ditto of the Woodlands, not a Norton Ditto of Houston who happens to have a store there. We worked hard on getting involved with the local charities and organizations too. For example, one of the advisors is the head minister of a Methodist church who also ran for office and held his winning reception in our store.” The Woodlands store slants heavier towards sportswear than the original location. Selling particularly well are brands like Robert Graham, Rufus and Sand.
Hite’s approaching the spring ’12 market looking for what’s next. “We continue to sell sport shirts, but at some point guys will have a closet full of them. I keep looking for a different kind of knit—something with sex appeal that can be worn dressy.
“Our main concern from a merchandise standpoint is quality. It’s been a little harder to find quality at a price, so we’ll continue to shop the market for it.”
As for the Houston location, Hite says, “The economy has picked up and overall business in Houston is better. We had some increases in the beginning of the year (14 percent in February, 22 percent in March and 30 percent in April). “The key is to keep evolving. We didn’t want to become ‘your dad’s old store,’ so a few years ago we made significant changes to the business. We switched up some of our brands, merchandising, and how we promoted the store. I want to become more of a lifestyle store by offering different products like creative gifts, and interesting non-apparel items. We’re paying a lot of attention to our website and Facebook page. We publish a magazine and I want to do more with that on our website. I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve done a lousy job with displaying merchandise on the site and I want to improve that. Because sportswear is shipped so frequently, there’s a lot of opportunity for us to show newness and bring guys in.”
The store has an impressive 100-plus year history. It opened in 1908 as Norton-Barringer; when Mr. Barringer died in the late 1920s, it changed to Norton’s until the Ditto family took over half the ownership around 1946. The store was later turned over to brothers Lanson B. Ditto, Jr. and Ben Ditto, who owned and operated the business for over 40 years. Hite got his start after receiving a call from his Uncle Ben who was in need of help. So he packed up, moved to Houston and has been running the store for the past 30 years. In 2008 Hite took over Harolds in the Heights, a Houston institution famous for selling cowboy boots to former President George H.W. Bush. He recently made the difficult decision to close it: “We thought we could turn the tides, but the bottom line is two out of the three stores were making money. I truly appreciate Harolds’ history, but just can’t keep something open that’s not profitable.”
Hite is also involved in his community, something that’s important to him as a local retailer. “I’m on the board of the University of Texas Medical School, one of our local museum boards and president of our country club. Once I moved to Houston I fell in love with the city, the people, and then my wife Ginger.” They now have five kids together: Katie 34, Kristin 32, Heidi 29, Richard Jr. 28 and John 25. “John has been in the business for about a year and works in sales. So we’ll see if he’ll take over the business some day.” When he’s not in the store or spending time with his family, he’s playing competitive golf. “My handicap is 5, the highest it’s been since I was 16!”