Best Buyers 2012: Dana Katz, Milton’s

by Harry Sheff

Boston boy: Milton’s Dana Katz has mastered the art of balance.

Dana Katz, owner of Milton’s, grew up on the sales floor; his father took him on his first buying trip to New York when he was seven years old. “My dad still tells the story of when we landed from a bumpy flight, and I lost my breakfast all over Chester Kessler’s (of Hammonton Park Clothes) new parquet office floor!”

Milton’s was opened in 1947 by his grandfather and father in Braintree, Mass.; in 1968 they opened the second location in Chestnut Hill. At one point, there were seven stores total, but five closed by 1993. Growing up, Katz worked at the store and came on full-time in 1983. Finally, in 1987, he bought the business from his father when his father moved to Israel (where he still resides). Originally, Milton’s was a traditional full-price store, but that changed in the early ’80s. His father decided to test an off-price concept in Warwick, R.I. called Rack & Hanger. “That’s when the company was reborn,” Katz explains. “We went from full markup, to off-price, to what we are now: a value-priced specialty store.”

Katz, who describes himself as thoughtful, impatient and passionate, is responsible for all aspects of the business, but says most of his time is spent merchandising and conducting product knowledge seminars for his employees. “The best part about my job, hands down, is the people,” says Katz. “I sell to our customers (most of whom I love), I buy from our vendors (most of whom I love), and I work with our associates (all of whom I love!).”

Milton’s core business is tailored clothing. Younger customers looking for trimmer fits helped jumpstart suit business several years ago. Suit separates from Peerless have been strong, as well as vested suits at all price levels, and novelty sportcoats. Katz calls out the two members on his team who handle the replenishment buying: COO Bill Leva and his assistant, Marty Powers. “Replenishment product plays a key role in our merchandise mix, but you also need to know when to change replenishment product for something new and not get complacent.”

Business is off to a strong start for fall, and sportswear (which lagged behind clothing for awhile) is starting to pick up. “Sportswear is an opportunity for us and we’re going after it aggressively,” says Katz. In Braintree, sportswear is merchandised in its own department called Level 40. “Level 40 allows us to merchandise casual clothing in its own environment, which gives us room to better merchandise dressy sportswear with tailored sportcoats and outerwear.”

Level 40 stocks everything from premium denim (“We’re just getting our feet wet with denim but are selling brands like 7 For All Mankind, Hugo Boss, Mavi, 34 Heritage and Levi’s.”) to sportswear brands like Puma Ferrari, 47 Brand Patriots gear, Rockmount Ranch Wear and Dockers. Hot categories for fall include mixed media sweaters, and wovens are still strong. There are elements of Level 40 within Chestnut Hill now and they’ll implement the full concept after the store is renovated next fall. A new retail development is opening in that area, so Katz expects Chestnut Hill’s volume to soon equal that of Braintree.

The Milton’s customer base ranges, but they’re focused on the younger guy. “I still see too many mature men wearing outdated clothing (i.e. wide lapels, three-button jackets, pleated pants, wide ties, etc.). Without offending them, we need to persuade them to try updated looks. In order to jumpstart sales we need to educate our associates and customers on what’s new, but more importantly, what clothing can do for them! It’s much easier to do this with younger guys because they get it quicker than their fathers; marketing to them is important.”

Milton’s marketing strategies are mainly focused on sports because Boston is such a sports-centric city. Efforts are focused on outlets like sports talk radio (where they’ve developed strong ties to the radio show hosts) and at Boston College football games. The latest initiative is online with “We run a monthly ‘Pimp My Look’ contest. Guys are asked to send in photos and a sob story about how they’re desperate for a new look. We pick a winner every month, give them a makeover and post the ‘after’ photos on the site.”

Katz admits that he is finally starting to master how to balance his personal with his professional life. He’s married to his best friend Ariela, and they have two adult children. “Our kids, Becky and Alex, are both living and working in NYC and have turned out better than we could have ever imagined. That said, I’m still trying to persuade one of them to take over the business when I’m ready to retire!”