by Karen Alberg Grossman

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While independent stores struggle for survival, Darien, Connecticut’s Darien Sport Shop, founded in 1946 by Stephen Zangrillo and now run by his dynamic daughter Gina, has reinforced a niche that’s been working for them year after year. With a focus on family, community, sports and beautiful clothes (upscale but not over the top), the team at DSS knows its customer and continues to create excitement within a clearly defined framework.

Running a successful retail business in 2015 was especially challenging. “This was a very different year: one with peaks and valleys and shopping habits changing exponentially,” observes menswear evp/gmm Tom Whitney (who’s been heading menswear at DSS for eight years, following department store experience at Lord & Taylor and Hecht Company).

While most merchants allude to a negative change (guys buying less in-store, more on Amazon), Whitney’s take is the opposite. He believes that guys are becoming more involved in the shopping process, and more concerned about what they look like. “There are a lot of young families in Darien and we’re seeing more guys shopping for themselves, interested in clothes. It’s a positive sign.”

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We visited the store just before Christmas and were impressed with its energy and warmth, its open layout, colorful assortments, strong visuals and build-outs. The menswear floor is about 8,000 square feet, contributing 25 percent to store volume (which includes ladies, team, outdoor, kids and gifts). Menswear breaks down into 14 percent clothing, 60 percent sportswear and 26 percent furnishings, footwear and accessories.

Among the hot items for fall/holiday 2015, according to Whitney and his star buyer Robin McVicar, were Gyde outerwear (with its high-tech heating elements), all things Peter Millar, Johnnie-O, Vineyard Vines, Polo (especially tailored clothing), and contemporary brands like Vince, AG, and DL1961. (“Granted, we were late into contemporary: we didn’t have designer denim when it was driving sales for everyone else.”)

Asked what he’s learned from the store founders, Whitney says he can go on for days. “From both Mr. Z and Gina, I learned the importance of always asking ‘What will make the customer happy?’ Mr. Z built his business from a team sporting goods store in 1946 to what it is today by listening to his customer, trusting his customer, and trying to take care of their every need. From Gina, I’ve learned the importance of change and never being afraid to try something new. Gina is fearless about changing the look of the store and adding new lines, no matter the economic climate or what conventional wisdom at the time might dictate.”

Clearly, being fearless has served them well.