2012 was a very big year for The Tie Bar: the online retailer of $15 ties grew significantly in both sales and staff, added new categories and began a partnership with actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson (ABC’s Modern Family) on a line of bow ties supporting same-sex marriage.
Greg Shugar and his wife Gina were corporate lawyers when they started The Tie Bar in 2004. The first time I interviewed Shugar, back in 2010, he had seven employees and did most of the designing himself. In 2012 Shugar and his wife doubled their sales from the previous year and hired 28 new people. They now sell ties, tie bars, socks, pocket squares and cuff links and more categories, like money clips, are in the works.
There are a few keys to The Tie Bar’s success. One was an early article in the Chicago Tribune favorably comparing the $15 tie to a $150 tie — not to mention a seemingly endless stream of placements in GQ. Another has to be the shift in thinking about ties among younger men. They’re seeing ties as fashion accessories and shop for color and design, rather than brand alone. The Tie Bar has been able to deliver plaids, cotton and wool ties, madras and plenty of skinny ties to an eager customer, one who’s shopping online more and more.
Yet another factor is The Tie Bar’s gradual shift from cautiously reflecting market trends to venturing into them as they happen, taking more risks. “We started getting better at what we do,” Shugar told me. “In the first couple of years, we just wanted to keep up with the established brands. Once we caught up, we said, hey, we’ve got a loyal customer base now and we know what we’re doing. Some of those risks have paid off, some haven’t.”
Successful risks include colored tie bars, cotton madras ties and wool suiting ties. “Two falls ago, there weren’t a lot of wool suiting ties,” says Shugar. “We didn’t start the trend, but we got firmly behind it with 30 different styles early on, and it did very well for us. Likewise reversible bow ties: we started them in April and sold out of our original 60-piece, 3,000-unit run in a month and half. We didn’t invent them, but we seized the concept early and made it our own.”
The partnership with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his fiance Justin Mikita on Tie the Knot was risky too: advocating a position on an issue that has polarized much of the country could have resulted in some lost sales, but by all accounts it has not.
“Gina and I view it as a human rights issue,” Shugar says confidently. “Our goal is to put Tie the Knot out of business, meaning that all 50 states have legal same-sex marriages. Once that’s in place, they’ll be out of business and the line will end.”
In the meantime, Tie the Knot is about to launch its second season (February 26), with 20 bow ties. One of them, the Signature Wedding Tie (pictured here, $25 retail), will always be available—it’s meant to be symbolic of the movement, like a pink ribbon is for breast cancer. In addition, a different celebrity will design one tie each season; for spring, it’s Isaac Mizrahi.
Beyond collaborations, The Tie Bar is gradually expanding from its own e-commerce business model: it is in talks with Nordstrom—thanks in part to a deal with GQ—for the luxury retailer to start carrying more of The Tie Bar’s products. They currently stock sterling silver tie bars ($39.50 retail) that aren’t carried anywhere else. Similar discussions are happening with Gilt Groupe for their post-Park & Bond full-priced menswear site.
That said, the overwhelming majority of The Tie Bar’s business comes from direct to consumer sales on the website. Ties, which are all made of natural fibers like silk, cotton and wool, and tie bars are all $15. Pocket squares and socks sell for $8 and cufflinks are $20. Shugar is realistic about his place in the market: The Tie Bar essentially sells ties at wholesale to the public.
But it’s that niche that has had a hand in helping a new generation of men to stock their closets with neckwear. “I think what we’ve done best is to create a space that didn’t exist before, which is an inexpensive tie that’s both good quality and good looking,” says Shugar. “A lot of companies will have one of those factors, but no one else has done all of it.
“Is there a difference between our $15 tie and a $100 branded tie? Yeah, there’s a difference. When people in the industry sit down with the product, they’ll be able to point out some of the differences. But we’re marketing to the guy who doesn’t necessarily need all that comes with a $100 tie. We sell attainable fashion. They still last; they’re still well-made. We sell a Honda, not a BMW, and we do it at less than a Honda price.”
A few years ago, I published a plea from Shugar to the industry to organize a neckwear trade association again—this was in August of 2010, two years after the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association disbanded. That rallying cry got no response then. I asked him if he still thought it was a good idea. “I wanted to do it because I wanted to create interest in a younger demographic of professional men, and that’s sort of happened anyway,” he said. “I would love to be part of a neckwear association. I love this business and I want us all to succeed in it.”
Finally, I asked Shugar what he thought the direction of e-commerce was. As someone who has been in the business for nearly ten years now, has e-commerce in general reached maturity? “E-commerce hasn’t nearly come to its full maturity,” he told me. “We all are still learning customer online shopping habits and we are at a distinct disadvantage in knowing what they are thinking as they shop online. And most shoppers still prefer to hold and feel a product before committing to a purchase.”
He continued, “Many websites are doing a much better job of bridging the gap, and some companies have gone the extra step of creating non-traditional brick-and-mortar stores or showrooms (something that we too are looking into later in 2013) to offer as a supplement to their online shop. It’s hard to believe e-commerce will ever truly replace the in-store experience but technological and other creative ideas will surface through the years to make the online experience as close to an in-store experience as possible.”