Catching Up with John Stern, Straus Clothing

Few stores have the history and heritage of Fargo, North Dakota’s Straus Clothing, now entering its 135th year. We caught up with John Stern at the MRket show in Vegas to learn a few longevity lessons…

Karen Alberg Grossman with John Stern

How’s business?
We’ve had a good season: the economy in North Dakota is the best in the country. We’re number two in oil production; we’ve got only three percent unemployment, taxes are down and our farm economy is very healthy.

But what’s doing in terms of men’s fashion?
We’ve had a really strong reaction to Austin Reed suit separates that we bought at a price ($57.50) and put in as sportcoats at $139 retail (MSRP $275). We told the story on radio; I even put it on my personal Facebook page and the response has been tremendous. We’ve reordered several times.

Another hot category that we brought in for the first time: Tommy Bahama women’s. Even though we’re a men’s store, it’s selling really well. (Tommy Bahama is our biggest vendor in men’s.) We’re also doing well with Cutter & Buck, Cotton Reel and St Croix.

Sounds like a strong traditional mix; how’s your contemporary men’s business?
Seven years ago we were really optimistic about this market so we opened a separate freestanding contemporary store. Two years ago, we moved this business back into our main store. But bottom line: it’s doing well. It’s only eight percent of our total volume but gross margin has improved from 38 to 48 percent.

How’s tailored clothing business?
It’s healthy. We do mostly moderate clothing: our top of the line suits are about $900 from Victor and Hart Schaffner Marx. But we’re also doing really well with Hugo Boss for younger guys. The Midwest customer is definitely not slim but younger guys are responding to a trimmer cut. We also do made-to-measure clothing and that business has been good: HSM and S. Cohen at retails from $900 to $1,600.

What’s your secret for succeeding with a fourth generation business, 135 years later?
My grandfather’s cousin founded the business in 1879; Mr. Straus bought it from Mr. Sternberg in 1889. We started with one store, grew to nine and new we’re back to one. The key to our future will be how we adjust to the internet. Already, we have customers who buy direct from various off-price websites (half price or less) and then come to us for the alterations. It’s frustrating but it’s reality so we need to adjust to it.

How do we do that? Value-priced product, personal service and a real emphasis on giving interesting information about the product, like we did with our recent Austin Reed promotion. I truly believe that telling stories about our products in an intelligent way is a tremendous asset for independent stores. Customers crave information. Unfortunately, it took me 40 years to figure this out…

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