Bergdorf Goodman: Still the Pinnacle

Uptown/Downtown Awards — 10 Most Influential Retailers

How Bergdorf Goodman is changing with the new luxury customer

Joshua SchulmanJoshua Schulman describes himself as “curious,” a trait that has served him well through a career that includes five years as CEO of Jimmy Choo, eight years at Gucci Group (including EVP of Saint Laurent), executive positions at Kenneth Cole and Gap and, for the past two years, CEO of Bergdorf Goodman. “He appreciates the legacy of Bergdorf Goodman but understands that brands have to be continuously defined and redefined,” said Neiman Marcus’s CEO Karen Katz upon Schulman’s appointment in May 2012. Here, we speak to this well-respected executive about Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s store.

What is Bergdorf Goodman’s new niche in the retail world?
Bergdorf Goodman has always been the pinnacle of luxury, but luxury today is different than it was. While still the core of our DNA, the essence of who we are, the definition of luxury has changed over the years, reflecting how people now live their lives. And that’s what’s so exciting about the renovation of our men’s store, our new Goodman marketing campaign, our service model and all the things we’re doing to evolve as the pinnacle of luxury.
BG has interesting layers to our business: we’re certainly the neighborhood store for the world’s most exciting neighborhood. But we also have an important international clientele. For example, when the UN is in session, business skyrockets as a result of all the global customers who make sure to stop by the store. There’s only one Bergdorf and there’s no other retail organization quite like us. We have no concessions; nothing is on consignment. We have a great merchant team dedicated to buying and curating product from around the world for the most discerning customers in the world.

Who specifically is this customer and what does luxury mean to him?
Historically our target demographic has always been the captains of industry, and they remain the core part of our customer base. But we’re now seeing more participation in luxury, fashion and designer goods from all different walks of life. We see a new generation of entrepreneurs from different workplace environments, guys who have amassed considerable wealth but have different sartorial needs.

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Does this mean they dress more casually?
There’s definitely a more casual element in their wardrobes. Twenty years ago, when BG opened its men’s store, to be affluent meant you wore a very particular uniform. Today, men can be more experimental. We certainly have an important tailored clothing business and that’s still our bedrock but at the same time, there’s a notable casualization. We have brands like Cucinelli in which tailored clothing is becoming an important component, but our customers are not distinguishing between clothing and sportswear. These are retailer terms: our customer just wants beautiful clothes. So we’re seeing some of our pillar brands like Zegna and Brioni rapidly growing their sportswear and brands like Cucinelli rapidly growing their tailored component. Customers are buying to suit a lifestyle.

Is there any price-resistance, or do you only have customers who don’t need to ask?
There are different appropriate price tiers for different types of garments. When the quality and the provenance is there, BG has an unparalleled ability to sell products at the top of the pyramid. Most global luxury brands, certainly the ones where I have worked, are built on a pyramid with the most accessible product making up most of their business. As you get higher up, the product gets more rarified and it’s a smaller penetration.
BG is a little unique: because we have only one store and because our real estate is finite, we can sell as much at the top of the pyramid as at the bottom. So for us. it’s less like a pyramid and more like a layer cake.

What about your online component: is that not infinite?
Absolutely. The customer today is very connected to technology so there’s an important relationship between what happens online and what happens in store. We’ve responded to this by empowering all of our sales associates with digital devices. Each has a personal iPhone and is interacting with their customers 24/7. The client doesn’t even have to come to the store: you’ll see sales associates snapping pictures, sending out photos, getting feedback, creating a constant dialogue loop that takes the personal service that we’ve always been famous for into the modern era.

Our customers are worldly, well-traveled, wired and well-dressed. By empowering our sales associates with the tools to communicate with them, the growth online has been robust.

What’s hot at retail these days?
Tom Ford, a brand that was launched at BG, continues to be a pillar for us, certainly in tailored and growing in sportswear. We have Tom Ford men’s RTW, furnishings, accessories and shoes exclusively in New York, and we’re opening a furnishings shop for him on our ground floor which will have the complete haberdashery to go with the clothing, sportswear and shoes. Then we’re extremely proud to have the worldwide wholesale exclusive on Berluti, which we launched this spring. The team at Berluti has taken a luxury shoe brand and created an entire lifestyle around it. We love what Alessandro Sartori is doing and we saw an immediate reaction to the RTW, leathergoods and shoes.

Another brand we introduced as part of our renovation is Goyard: we’ve had a shop in our women’s store for some time, but we wanted to do something special in men’s. So we worked very closely with the brand to create a one-of-a-kind shop in America based on their men’s store at 352 rue Saint Honoré in Paris.

As for strongest categories: I’d say it’s been leathergoods and shoes. We’ve allocated a large shop right in front of the store to leathergoods including Tom Ford, Berluti, Goyard, Prada, Tod’s and others. Guys today carry so many devices, they need something to tote it all in. The days of a simple black or brown briefcase are over!

Is being a separate men’s store an asset or a liability?
Historically, when Ira Neimark had the idea to open a separate men’s store, the motivation was to clear space in the women’s store. There were articles at the time that called it “Neimark’s Folly,” but I think we proved the naysayers wrong and over time, the separate space allowed us to create an identity and a taste level that is very unique. In some ways we look to the past, to great old haberdashery stores, as inspiration. At the same time, this is the first store to carry Thom Browne, to carry Tom Ford, and many others. So there’s this dichotomy of respecting a sartorial heritage while always looking for innovation.

Who is your competition and what is your point of difference?
Competition is everywhere: from big buildings within a 10 block radius to specialty stores, single vendor stores, websites. These days, we’re as much attuned to what’s going on within 10 blocks as we are to what’s going on in London, Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

So what’s your competitive advantage?
I believe it’s a combination of our unique type of service and our unparalleled brand mix. Take neckwear, for example: in no other store can you find Hermés, Charvet and Tom Ford ties under one roof. There’s a consistent taste level of carefully curated brands throughout the store, be it Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Dries Van Noten, Kiton, Brioni or Attolini.

And while we feature the best brands and designers in the world, we don’t allow vendor concessions; that’s not part of our operating model. Instead we have an integrated selling model: our team curates the merchandise and our sales associates sell across all brands. That’s why we believe vendor stores can complement our business rather than compete with us and why, unlike most retailers, I don’t view my vendors as competitors. Often when brands have retail stores, they think like retailers and are more attuned to the customer, which is, of course, a good thing. But we can dress a customer for all aspects of his life and take him across brands and classifications in a different way than a vendor store can.

Who are your mentors in this industry?
I’ve been fortunate to have had some great ones including Domenico De Sole and
Tom Ford.

Can you talk about your new “Goodman” sub-brand, created last fall?
It’s been one of my pet projects, the result of a great collaboration among many on my team. One of our recent campaigns featured New York tastemakers, successful men from different walks of life discussing personal style. It’s gotten a very strong response: we have new people coming into the store for the first time.

What keeps you awake at night?
Since we’re maniacally focused on our people and our customers, I’m always thinking about getting our people the right tools to cater to our increasingly discerning clientele.

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Bergdorf Goodman in a Nutshell

Established: 1901 by master tailors Edwin Goodman and Herman Bergdorf. The separate men’s store was established in 1990.
A Recent Charity Favorite: Empire State Pride Agenda
A Recent Collaboration: Hosted a dinner with Dries Van Noten and well-known artists to celebrate the Frieze Art Fair.
Spectacular Men’s Marketing: Their recent “Goodman” campaign, featuring numerous male style setters talking about fashion and about life. (“A Goodman never forgets his manners.” “A Goodman follows his nature.” “A Goodman finishes first.”)
BG References in Popular Culture: In That Touch of Mink, Cary Grant treats Doris Day to a shopping spree at Bergdorf’s. In North by Northwest, Eva Marie Saint’s handbag with hidden gun is from Bergdorf’s. In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sarah Jessica Parker’s character) favorite shopping spot was Bergdorf’s. And in 2013, BG was the subject of a full length documentary: Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.

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