Best Buyers 2012: Vern Ticknor, Ticknors

Have fashions, will travel: Vern Ticknor is bringing his northern buy to the south.

Vern Ticknor always knew he wanted to be in business for himself, but just what business he wasn’t sure. Then in 1979, Ticknor joined the team at Diamond’s Men’s Store in Ohio. “Norm Diamond gave me the opportunity to learn a trade, so to speak,” says Ticknor.

Fourteen years later, he and a co-worker, Kevin Chernikoff, branched out on their own to open Ticknors, which now operates five mall-based stores throughout Ohio and one in Raleigh, N.C. “We started out as a suit store with a little bit of casual. We still sell a lot of suits, but casualwear—where things change more frequently—has been our exciting new venture,” he explains. “We’re at 40 percent sportswear now and one of the biggest changes has come from sweaters. They used to be either V-neck or crewneck and once in awhile a button-up cardigan, which was deemed an old man’s sweater. Now that cardigan has a zipper, or elbow patches, or a shoulder treatment, or some luxury fabric. You don’t get as hot because you can open the front, and if you needed to wear a tie to make it dressier you could.” An “exceptionally good” outerwear business accounts for another 15 percent of sales, with Gimo’s performing at the high end, and Bod & Christensen in the mid-price category.

Ticknor does all the buying himself at a corporate office, though he sometimes relies on a second opinion from Chernikoff, “especially if the item is something unique. In that case we’re either going to blow them out in four days or not sell a single one—when that happens you want someone to be in the lifeboat with you!” Ticknor also makes sure to visit each store frequently. “I’ve seen what happens to companies when their owners get successful and lose track of what’s happening on the sales floor,” he says. “Just like I want my employees to wait on people like they’re the owner of the company, I have to buy like I’m waiting on every single person.”

How to keep things running smoothly at the Raleigh store, some 600 miles away? Ticnkor says that business is surprisingly similar. “Some of our wholesalers told us we were going to have to completely change our buy. But when we spoke to mall owners down there, they said ‘Don’t change! We didn’t bring you down here so you could make another good ol’ boys store. People are relocating from New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio and they don’t want to wear the traditional clothing. They want fashion from New York, London and Italy, and we don’t want them to have to go back up the coast to do their shopping.’ We’ve stayed a Ticknors and it has worked. Some of the locals have even started to appreciate the fashions!”

Since starting his business almost 20 years ago, Ticknor says the biggest lesson he’s learned is the importance of turnover. “You have to keep it going, at least three or four times a year, and if you need to buy less to do that, it’s okay. As customers start to come back, you don’t want them seeing the same thing every time.”

Ticknor has been very pleased with his business and has no big plans to change it in 2013. “The only thing I’d like to tweak is that everyone wants to ship us four months out of the year: September and October, March and April. Our stores are not big enough to take everything we’re going to need for the year in those four months. It’s seemingly very difficult to spread it out. (But if it takes six months to make I don’t see why it’s all being unloaded on the docks at the same time….) Basically I want product coming in every month but December. Otherwise we oscillate between a sloppy looking store and an empty looking store. Even in a sale month I still want some new things: nobody wants to spend money in a store that looks like it’s going out of business.” He says his biggest weakness is not having been able to convince the industry to make this change, but he insists, “I’m not giving up!”

Ticknor says he’s someone who says what he means and means what he says. He’s married to “a lovely young lady, Mary Jane” and has two sons, Blake and Jagger, who work at Ticknors in Raleigh. Far from pressuring his kids to take over one day, Ticknor says, “I just hope they learn how to run a business. If clothing continues to be their passion, then wonderful. Or if they want to take the knowledge and apply it to selling cars or widgets…they can make that jump.”

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