Perlis: Southern charm

Perlis is selling menswear with a side of crawfish.

2011 Uptown Downtown AwardsImagine this scenario: you’re a menswear retailer in the South. You sell close to 5,000 Lacoste polo shirts a year, and then all of a sudden Lacoste drops your account, and Polo Ralph Lauren won’t sell you either. What is a merchant to do?

That’s exactly the scenario New Orleans-based Perlis faced in 1979. “Our backs were against the wall,” says owner David W. Perlis. “So my father, David G. Perlis, created and trademarked his own polo with our (now) signature crawfish logo. It was a tough situation to be in, but we continuously thank Polo for forcing us to get creative. We now have a 20-year-old, seven-figure private label business.” (Editor’s note: Ironically enough Polo is currently sold at Perlis, but much of the business is in bottoms, not polo shirts…)

As for current business, Perlis says the spring season was remarkably better than the past two years with interest heavily in sportswear over tailored. The last store renovation was in 2000, when they expanded it from a 10,000 sq. ft. building to a 16,000 sq. ft. building. They didn’t add any tailored clothing, which made a much stronger sportswear statement.

“We increased sportswear because that’s what’s going on in the market. We keep hearing about another shift to tailored, but our clothing business just bottomed out in April. Every other category bottomed earlier and is now starting to grow. I like to say, clothing is flat but finally!”

Perlis says one of his secrets to success is finding new ways of creating traffic. “You need people in the store, so we’re strategic about how to do it. For example, we do uniforms for a local private school—which brings in the right demographic in August, typically a slow month. Formalwear is labor intensive, but we can have six weddings in one weekend! That means 70 or 80 groomsmen are in the store and they may buy an extra pair of shoes or a local crawfish top. It’s all about coming up with ways to bring people in.”

Another way to bring in traffic is a little thing in New Orleans called Mardi Gras. “We have an extra season in February where most stores are marking down and moving out, but we’ve got a three week to 30 day season built around Mardi Gras. People who aren’t from here see it as one big party, but that’s not true for the locals. It started as the old established families’ daughters’ introduction into society, which is still its culmination, so we sell a lot of formal attire. We can sell 75 or more sets of tails a year and are probably the only specialty store who can say that! We’re also known for our Mardi Gras shirts, which are the colors of carnival—purple, green and gold—not necessarily the most attractive combination, but we sell several thousand of these shirts.”

Perlis is a true family business in its third generation, which he jokes, “is great 90 percent of the time…” His grandfather was an orphan who grew up in the depression era and built the business from nothing. His father is now the figurehead who still greets customers at the door. That is, unless he gets a better offer, which usually revolves around anything to do with his grandchildren. David and his wife Suzanne have three beautiful kids, Caroline, 14; Robert, 11 (a.k.a “Wicker,” after David’s middle name); and Lauren, 8. “It excites me to be the third generation of a successful business. You read about family businesses where the first generation builds it, the second generation improves it and the third generation kills it. I’m so grateful that is not the case for us and we’re continuing to grow.”

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