Best Buyers 2012: Ken Gushner, Boyds

The professional: After 30 years at Boyds, Ken Gushner still lives and breathes the business.

Boyds’ Ken Gushner is known to be intense. Intense and candid. “Of course I’d love to see that hot new item that would miraculously revolutionize our men’s business, but it’s not realistic: there’s nothing like that now; there hasn’t been for a long time. We had a very good August and a decent September, but I’m holding my breath for the rest of the season. With the election and a precarious economy, who knows? But it had better be good: we’ve got a lot of inventory…”

Founded by Ken’s grandfather in 1938, Boyds is still very much a suit store, with 60 percent of menswear volume in tailored clothing, 25 percent in furnishings/accessories and 15 percent in sportswear. Women’s is 22 percent of store volume and growing; Gushner expects it to be 50 percent in five years. “We have a goal in mind that we’re moving towards, but I don’t expect miracles overnight.”

Driving menswear business is clothing (Boyds is famous for its gorgeous sky-lit tailor shop with 44 tailors!) and a “greater acceptance of slimmer, shorter (but not extreme) models. It’s actually the same two-button, side-vented, flat-front, slimmer-fit model that’s dominated all brands for the past few years. But we can’t get tired of it since consumers are just beginning to accept it. We’ve seen a little fall business in vested suits but DBs are, unfortunately, few and far between. I’m thinking fall 2013 might be the right timing for a DB resurgence…”

Gushner observes that high-end clothing is doing much better than opening and moderate: $1,000-plus retails, even $2,000-plus (Canali, Brioni, Isaia). “While more young guys are buying suits today than a few years ago, it’s mostly a middle-age core that’s driving the increases: guys in their 40s and 50s spending big bucks on tailored clothing, replacing those guys now in their 70s who we’d been living off for a long time…”

Noting that he’s “up to his eyeballs in the ladies’ side of the business,” Gushner credits women’s for ultimately reinvigorating menswear, for changing the vibe of the store, especially since he moved handbags and women’s shoes front and center (replacing leased fine jewelry). “I find the women’s market much more exciting than men’s: there’s more change, more acceptance of fashion, silhouette, color, pattern. The parameters are broader so it’s more interesting, and after 30 years of buying men’s suits, it’s a refreshing change. That said, the acceptance of fashion in women’s has brought more fashion-conscious guys into the store. I believe that men’s fashion has to be pushed, so we’re pushing it. We have an obligation to push it. With women’s, you don’t need to push them; they push you! And if you’re successful in identifying a hot look or color or brand, business can take off. Of course, the markdowns in women’s are fierce! They have to be: the competition marks down regularly and aggressively; it’s a different business model. But at the end of the day, I prefer men’s: it’s a steadier business; I sleep better at night…”

Admitting that he’s a bit jaded when it comes to finding the next big thing in menswear (“and when you do find something exciting, how salable is it?”), Gushner rationalizes that “it doesn’t have to be truly revolutionary, it just needs to be a little fresh, a little interesting, a little thought-provoking and/or emotionally stimulating to your salespeople and your client base. Then you need to figure out the tipping point.”

Of course, not even a pro like Gushner gets it right all the time. “Take outerwear last winter: I totally miscalculated by a long shot my commitment to heavy down-filled styles. I wasn’t expecting the warm winter and I bought lots of heavy stuff that didn’t sell at all. I absolutely put too many eggs in that basket since the year before, we’d loaded up on lines like Moncler and Canada Goose, which flew out. Hopefully, I’ve learned the lesson.”

On the plus side, in addition to better clothing (MTM is still a small but growing part of the business), Boyds’ men’s shoe business (in its new main floor department that replaced the store’s restaurant) is on fire. “Boots are flying out,” he confides, “at retails from $300 to $700, brands like Prada, Gucci, Tod’s, Santoni and our newly launched To Boot New York. I miss the restaurant but from a profit perspective, this makes more sense.”

Also selling well in men’s: sweaters (fashion cardigans, less classic styles), denim (in blues and colors, from brands like AG, Citizens, JBrand, Hiltl and Alberto for more mature customers), and contemporary lines like Rag & Bone and Vince. “We’ve carried contemporary for several years now but it was always on the periphery. It’s now more mainstream: we’re definitely attracting a younger customer into the store.”

As to what defines a good buyer, Gushner has strong opinions. “A good buyer has to be a good seller,” he maintains. “He needs to communicate his vision to the associates who will be selling it. I sometimes watch retailers in the market and I’m amazed by their lack of passion, their lack of conviction. Too often, they choose something because it’s selling somewhere else or because they’ve read that this or that label is important. Where’s the vision in that?

“I’m not in the market to bullshit or to go partying at night. I’m very focused on the buy: when I shop a line, I’ve totally dissected it in my mind. I know what’s right for Boyds and what isn’t and how it will fit in with the rest of my selling floor. Because being a good buyer requires not just a good eye but also a sense of how the product will compete against others. It’s a competitive selling floor, so each item needs a reason to exist in the inventory vs. something else competing for the customers’ (and the sales associates’) attention.

“Bottom line, there’s a big difference between a buyer (who’s given budget, a directive, a vendor matrix and fills it in) and a true merchant. But it’s a lot about instinct: I’m not sure how much can be taught…”

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