With his namesake Arkansas store just two years old, Donny Hubbard is facing the pandemic with innovation and optimism. Here, this experienced merchant (co-owner at Baumans Northwest, merchandiser at Rodes) with a lifetime love of fashion shares some insights, strategies, and plans.
Q: How are you faring since COVID-19, and how has the Pandemic shifted your original concept for the store?
A: We were closed for the month of April although there was no mandate to close from the Governor since our state’s rate of infection was under .5 percent. I just felt it was the right thing to do: we had two deaths in the family (a close aunt and uncle) and it just didn’t feel right to stay open after getting that news. We’re doing some business now; I’d say we’re at about 50 percent.
I know it sounds like a cliché but my original concept for the store was to create an experience, to give customers reasons to come in other than buying clothes since, in this day and age, you can find luxury menswear everywhere. So in addition to our barbershop (now a collaboration with a Dallas-based franchise) and back patio, we feature a beautifully designed and furnished private lounge that occupies 1,200 square feet of our 2,800 square foot store. It’s fabulous space (with very chic furniture available for sale); annual membership is $1,500. Members have their own liquor lockers and can use the space to work, to entertain, for meetings. (They also get a percentage of their annual purchases back in a year-end gift card and early access to special events and promotions.) Several people thought I was crazy to give up so much selling space but it also gives me space for trunk shows and events. More importantly, it brings people in on a regular basis, people who hang out in the store, who bring in their friends and contacts who often end up shopping. We have 40 members at this location; I’d say 15 of them use the lounge on a very regular basis and 10 are fabulous regular customers. This is our maximum capacity (although we have another similar lounge opening soon in a different location); we’re open to new members once a year at renewal time if someone drops out.
Q: Are you asking your vendors for discounts and dating?
A: No. I’ve been fortunate with my situation and we’ve managed to keep a line of cash flowing, the one advantage of being small. We didn’t furlough or lay off anyone or cut anyone’s pay. We kept the tailor shop open doing outside tailoring. I am truly touched that a few brands have offered discounts without being asked, which I graciously accepted. But I’m not going to put this on them.
Q: What are your key brands and what’s selling best now?
A: Our mix is 90 percent Italian: Canali, Baldassari, Eleventy, Boglioli, PT trousers, and a handmade clothing brand out of Naples that we have almost exclusively. I recently dropped a few recognized name brands who were starting to dictate minimums and what we should be buying: business can no longer work that way. The factors were providing credit to everyone for so long that retailers and brands got complacent. Now that it’s becoming upfront cash-in-hand payments, vendors can’t be as demanding. Plus, we retailers have to be more selective on who we choose as partners. When business was good, I was all about buy-buy-buy: we will need product on the shelves. Now, we’ve tightened the reins. However, I was lucky not to cancel fall orders: when Italy closed and production was halted, I assumed that cancellations would happen on their own. Which they did: I’ve heard from many of my brands that I’ll be getting 40-80 percent of what I ordered, which sounds just about right.
Current selling, as one would expect, is more casual than tailored. But made-to-measure has held up surprisingly well and footwear is a big plus. Our footwear business is at three levels: Di Bianco ($795-$895), Santoni ($500), and our private label brand out of Turkey ($300 and under).
Q: If casual is outselling tailored to a significant extent, how can retailers maintain volume?
A: That’s a tough one since I’d say that 90 percent of our sales these days are casual: brands like Faherty, M. Singer, and Fedeli knits. But I believe there will be pent-up demand for tailored clothing. Guys are buying made-to-measure clothing for zoom weddings. Local execs are coming in to order a new suit while admitting they don’t know when they’ll ever wear it… Fortunately, like many local independents, we have customers who are shopping just to help us out.
Q: What is your greatest fear these days?
A: That this pandemic is not going away any time soon. That the precarious state of luxury department stores will end up destroying the vendors. As independents, we should not be celebrating when a major store is in trouble: who’s been better at raising awareness of luxury brands than Neiman Marcus, Barneys, and Bergdorf Goodman, with their huge marketing budgets? We need the big stores to keep our vendors healthy. As they say, we’re all in this together.