Editor’s Letter: Apocalypse: Not!

In a tough market, industry insiders offer some sage advice.

Karen Alberg GrossmanMost in our industry would agree: despite decent fourth-quarter selling (with the help of widespread promotions), these are challenging times for the menswear industry. Not only is in-store foot traffic down considerably, but the business model as we knew it (manufacturers selling to retailers selling to consumers) has been replaced by a model in which anything goes. Brands and designers now sell directly to consumers, both online and in their own stores (regular-price and outlets). Conventional stores trying to sustain their brick-and-mortar model are also growing their outlet and online businesses, mostly at a much faster pace. Consumers now comparison shop on their phones, often checking Amazon before they buy anything anywhere. (According to Jupiter Research, mobile retail purchases will exceed $700 billion within five years!) With Jos. A. Bank (and others) still giving away “free” suits, shirts and outerwear, price credibility has been decimated and negotiating price at retail is no longer anathema, even at upscale stores. Clearly, at every tier of distribution, it’s the consumer who now calls the shots.

Case in point: I recently received a “need to vent” e-mail from specialty store merchant Pat Mon Pere from Patrick James in California (a well-established independent multi-store operation). He writes, “The landscape has certainly changed: the only certainty is that we don’t know what the future holds for us independents. This past Monday, to serve a customer, I had to purchase four shirts at retail directly from a designer’s store. It was the only way I could get the goods and I obviously didn’t want to send the customer to the designer’s website. I wish I could be more optimistic about the future role of specialty stores, but I just see them continuing to be marginalized by the very people who are trying to sell them.”

In sorting through the challenges, one thing seems obvious: it’s tough to compete with vendors who sell direct (and who sell Saks Off Fifth, Nordstrom Rack, Last Call by Neiman Marcus, etc.). If ever there was a season to add a few emerging brands to your mix, this is it. (And not to sound self-serving, but Vanguards Gallery at the MRket show is a great place to see numerous up-and-coming brands under one roof.)

As Jamie Davidson from Strong Suit (an emerging brand offering beautiful canvas-construction suits in heritage fabrics at under $600 retail) observes, “Stores can compete by buying and merchandising for a younger customer and identifying with brands that know how to speak to younger guys. The most dynamic stores in the country are not those that speak to 65 year olds anymore. The simple answer is: get younger!”

And from Vivek Nagrani, an innovative designer who’s creating buzz with both creative product and a fabulous NYC showroom/lodge: “Retailers’ expectations of huge margins forces manufacturers to avoid risk. So assortments are boring and stores themselves are boring! There’s no theatrical element, nothing to make customers want to come in. Assortments should be constantly changing! Why not showcase new things every Saturday? Of course sellers should be dressed to inspire and events should be both educational and entertaining.”

Finally, some words of wisdom from former PVH exec Michael Zaccaro (who headed up their retail division for many years): “Retailing has been around so long it’s probably the second oldest profession. And competition has plagued or improved it, depending on your perspective. It sounds like many merchants today view current competition as the retail apocalypse, which it’s not. As the great retailers throughout the ages (from the woman selling sheepskins at the 12th-century market to Marshall Field to Mickey Drexler) would tell you: be smarter, be better, be different! This strategy has worked for a long time.”

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