A pervasive problem for brick-and-mortar menswear retailers: how to capture young customers. Brigade founder Brian O’Neill does not pretend to have all the answers but his intuitive passion for retailing has guided his business over many precarious years. Brigade, his extant 2,500 square-foot Beachwood, Ohio mall store focused on elevated streetwear and customer service, is one of few contemporary stores selling lots of apparel without relying on sneakers or e-commerce. Here, O’Neill shares a few secrets.
Q: How did you get involved in fashion/retail?
A: I got into it because I was young and dumb. A lifelong friend and I actually wanted to start a factory so we came to NYC and met with a lot of people who advised against it. So we decided to try retail, which I totally loved from day one. The diversity of tasks—buying, selling, marketing, analytics—keeps it exciting. Twenty years later (now with a different partner), I’m still loving it, despite many challenges and changes.
Q: Tell us about these challenges and changes, and what you’ve learned.
A: The original store, launched in 2005, had an Americana focus, with brands like Rag & Bone, Band of Outsiders, and Nom de Guerre. We carried some women’s, some sustainable fabrics, but by 2012, I felt a pivot in the market and shifted strategy. First, I moved to a mall but took a spot not near big box or fast fashion stores but next to Saks. Second, I decided that instead of dictating what customers should wear, we’d let them tell us. This required eliminating all ego from the buying process, engaging customers in conversation, and actually listening.
Our target customer is young guys in their 20s and 30s, driven by image and music culture. We sell denim, tees, sweats, matching sets (short sets are hot this summer, but in terry, not typical linens) and related categories. Retails on denim are $150-$300; tees are $35 to $150; sweats are $90 to $180. We carry brands like Purple, G-Star, Scotch & Soda, Saturdays, C.P. Company (new to our audience). I’d say we’re mid to high-priced for Cleveland.
Q: Where are kids getting spending money in the midst of this pandemic economy with record unemployment?
A: Some are getting stimulus money and/or unemployment. They’re coming in two to three times a week, some every day. Maybe they just have more time to shop or want somewhere to hang out. Whatever the reason, our June business was up eight times what it is in a normal month. Although our mall never closed, we did. We reopened end-May and thought we’d flail around for the summer but business came back better than ever. Customers came in and hit the ground running, which is definitely a testament to our terrific sales staff cultivating lasting relationships with customers.
Q: Most streetwear merchants strongly emphasize sneakers; why don’t you?
A: There are so many sneaker stores in the mall: Footlocker, Finish Line, and others. We sell product they can’t find everywhere else. We nurture our apparel brands and build customer confidence in them. While we’ve changed our customer base and product mix in recent seasons, what hasn’t changed is our respect for our customers and emphasis on customer service.
Q: You make it sound so simple, which it clearly isn’t…
A: Well of course we have great analytics, POS systems, and CRM software so we can do fun things like polls and order product based on actual need. Reaching out and talking to our customers is probably the most important thing we do. Also, we allocate 15 percent of our open-to-buy to new brands that we then work hard to nurture.
Q: Is it true that you don’t do any business online? Why not?
A: We are so in touch with our customers via Instagram, email, facetime, texts, calls… I think unless they’re promoting private label or exclusive product, retailers are finding it tough to amortize their investment in e-commerce. For most, it’s trade-off volume rather than plus sales.
Q: What are your plans for the future? Do you envision more stores?
A: I’ve had four stores over the years and we’re now doing more volume in this single store than the others combined. I love brick-and-mortar retailing and I’m happy to build on what we have now. But I’ve also added some consulting as an affiliate of Management One.
Q: To what extent are your customers involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?
A: Our customers are definitely aware of our rapidly changing world and some are actively involved. Most are young, impressionable, and interested in what changes could be made.
Q: On a personal level, what are your greatest fears these days?
A: Coronavirus. Instability. Ignorance.