Best Buyers 2012: Anthony DiGirolamo, Garage Clothing

Street smart: Garage Clothing’s Anthony DiGirolamo captures customers with savvy pricing.

Anthony DiGirolamo packs a lot into a day. He does all the buying, from street to luxury categories, for the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn-based Garage Clothing…and has been known to show up for appointments with a box of wonderful Italian pastries.

The store takes its name from when DiGirolamo’s uncle, Louis Bisaquino, originally started selling clothes with his mother, Jean Bisaquino. Like many modern clothiers, they started peddling from a car, stocking goods in the family garage. As the business grew, they identified a nearby storefront and Garage Clothing was born. Then they bought the building next door…and the building next to that, knocking down walls and expanding as the business grew.

DiGirolamo got his start in retailing at 10 years old, watching the door to make sure everybody paid. In college he double-majored in finance/marketing and chemistry/biology, but he lays his streetwise retail education squarely at the feet of Uncle Lou, who still cooks a full Italian dinner for family, employees, customers and vendors every Friday night in the kitchen on the store’s lower level.

Uncle Lou’s quotes are legendary: “I call them Lou-isms,” says DiGirolamo. “Things like ‘Birds fly high, but they all have to come down to drink water eventually,’ meaning all businesses hit a bump, and that’s when you see who your real friends are. He’s always told me, ‘Sell to guys who have money in their pocket: waiters, bartenders, barbers…guys who make tips.’ They’ll buy right now and you can turn goods quickly. You get a regular working guy, and he’ll stall until his paycheck comes in. Uncle Lou has an innate ability to make money and he knows how to enjoy life.”

The 37-year-old store store currently employs 32 workers, and “everybody knows everybody,” says DiGirolamo. On the store’s pricing strategy, he says, “We tell the truth. You don’t have to buy four to get one free or use a credit card to get a discount. There’s a reason they call it a special-ty store. Our customer isn’t ‘super-fashion,’ but he’s very European and he knows trends. He wants to look youthful.”

The demographic of the store has changed with the neighborhood. “Originally our customers were all Italian and Jewish. Now we have a lot of Russian, Chinese and Arabic patrons.”

“Guys used to come into the store and know their size. ‘I’m a 39-regular.’ And yes, we’d have a 39-regular in stock. He’d try it on and we’d watch what we call ‘ticks,’ as the guy would check himself out in the mirror, pointing out subtle details in the jacket’s fit. Now guys come in and barely even know how to put on the jacket. But they know their trousers! We used to say ‘Don’t let the pants kill the sale,’ but now it’s all about the bottoms.

“I buy everything. We import from Italy regularly. We have at least one or two brands in every single category: shirts, ties and accessories to shoes and outerwear; and at all price points. We range from street to casual to dressy to luxury. It runs like a miniature department store. I get to experience all types of people, mix it all together and that’s who we are!

“There’s so much hype and marketing out there. If you don’t present quality either your customers won’t buy it—or they’ll buy it once and never come back. Good quality stands the test of time. We have suits at all price ranges, but there’s a certain quality level I won’t go under. Whether branded or not, six months from now a guy may forget how much he paid for a suit, but he won’t forget where he bought the suit.” [Editor’s note: the day of our interview, DiGirolamo was wearing a beautifully made full-canvas, rope-shouldered navy blazer out of China that he retails for $179!]

DiGirolamo learns what’s good for his business through trial and error. “We recently added sneakers. Initially our customer wasn’t coming into the store looking for them, so I had to stay the course until the business developed.”

The store is open from noon until 5 p.m., and then reopens from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. “Our hours are that way because we wanted to be open after dinner. All the businessmen worked in the city, so originally, we didn’t even have to be open during the day. Everybody came home, ate dinner and watched the six o’clock news. Uncle Lou told guys to come over after that.

“Success is all about relationships,” continues DiGirolamo. “It’s like that saying that you’re defined by your friends: your collective relationships define you.” At that point DiGirolamo lists the only other mentor he’ll credit that’s not family, Peerless’ Ronny Wurtzburger. “After I got divorced, he was always asking if I was dating and looking after me.”

Any other sage advice to fellow retailers?
“You have to have the right taste level for your customer. You can have the greatest taste in the world…but if you can’t sell it, you’re not a good buyer.”

Another tip: “Too many stores don’t own their property and they should. That way, even if the worst happens, you’ll always have the opportunity for rental income. In fact, once you’re making a profit, buy more property…not a boat.

“I have good credit. That’s the lifeline of your business. Make sure it stays A1,” advises DiGirolamo. “Make sure you pay your business first and yourself second. Vendors will want to sell you because you have good credit.”

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