Dress to impress: 2012 dress shirt retail survey

by Harry Sheff

According to our 2012 survey of retailers, dress shirt business is strong, albeit inconsistent. Still, everyone seems to be planning the business up for fall. As buyers often remind us, “If I don’t plan up, I don’t have a job…” The consensus among most is that fall plan is up between 5 and 10 percent. Some luxury retailers reported even larger gains—in the double digits—for dress shirts year-to-date. Spring ’13 plan may be slightly more conservative right now, but that could still change.

Fit is clearly the single biggest issue in dress shirts today. There is a lot of discussion about how to define “slim fit,” both for retailers and consumers on the sales floor. “Everything is getting slimmer, but it’s all semantics: what I would call traditional fit someone else might call fitted,” one better retailer tells us. “But everything is slimming down, everywhere. I don’t care if you’re the biggest, boxiest brand, they’re definitely getting slimmer. And if you’re already slim, you’re getting skinny.”

Traditional fits make up the vast majority of dress shirts at mid-tier chains, but again, it’s not always easy to define the terms, and the shirts they call traditional are still trimmer than they were two years ago. Even the mid-tier stores seem to break slim fit down into two sub-fits: slim and slimmer.

Some version of spread collar was dominant in better stores (ranging from 75 to 90 percent of total), while mid-tier stores reported almost the reverse: point made up around 60 percent. Button-down collars were low (around 10 percent of sales) or non-existent for most large retailers—they all agreed it was more of a sport shirt business. Collar size has gone down gradually (as one of our editors quipped, “Most guys can’t handle more than one change at a time”).

Non-iron or wrinkle-free cotton is the standard now among many of the retailers we surveyed. In one mid-tier store, all cotton dress shirts are non-iron and in one major better retailer, it was 90 percent. In other better stores, it’s closer to 50 percent of total. All-cotton dress shirts took a hit in mid-tier and mass retailers with the wild fluctuation of cotton prices over the last couple years, and blends (typically in the 60 percent cotton range) have stepped in to keep prices in line.

White dress shirts consistently make up about a third of retailers’ total, from mid-tier to better specialty stores. Shades of blue vary from 15 percent to 45. Nearly every retailer we surveyed mentioned a shade of purple, like lilac or lavender, as one of the top three fashion colors. Gray was the next most mentioned color, followed by black and green. Depending on the retailer, fancies can make up between a quarter and 40 percent of total, with checks edging out stripes.

French cuffs are in flux right now, but didn’t make up more than 20 percent of sales at any retailer. However, even mid-tier men’s stores did some (around 5 percent of total) French cuff business.

Strong brands included Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene, Joseph Abboud, Kenneth Cole Reaction and Van Heusen at the moderate end; Hugo Boss in better stores; and Eton, Forsyth of Canada and Robert Talbott in specialty stores. Not all retailers, but retailers at all levels, mentioned good business in private label dress shirts. Custom dress shirt business is stronger than ever at better stores, which are using trunk shows to much success.

Retailers Sound Off

“Our business is very non-iron focused—it’s close to 90 percent in dress shirts, and it’s been that way for years now. Unless it’s real luxe shirts or trad Oxford casual button-downs, regular cotton doesn’t have much of a place. Non-iron is a big driver in sport shirts, too, more so in fall than spring. In the spring there are so many other seasonal fabrications, like linen, madras and seersucker. Other than that, I’d say non-iron makes up about half of our sportshirts. We also upgraded our cotton this year, so all non-iron is Supima cotton. People think of non-iron shirts as stiff or scratchy, but it’s not that way anymore.” —Better specialty store chain

“We haven’t gotten into a lot of casual-type styles in dress shirts—in fact it’s gotten further away from that. Years ago, it was twills, chambrays and Oxfords, but our vendors aren’t doing that anymore—they’re going after the traditional dress shirt customers. We’re trying to get the younger guy wearing dress shirts again. Building wardrobes has been our big effort—whether it’s in suit separates or slim suits—we’re trying to get the young guy back in the store. And he really is starting to dress up again. He’s buying bow ties, something we never thought we’d sell three years ago.” —Mid-tier department store

“Private label is growing, but so is designer, so you can guess what’s going to be hit. Private label has to be among the best product you have. Yes, making money is important—that’s what we want to do with everything—but it’s not the sole factor. We’re not trying to build a promotional dress shirt brand, unlike my other friends. But then they have to.” —Upscale department store

“The direction in dress shirts seems to be toward performance fabrics as customers get more accustomed to the practicality. Sport shirts have leveled off after a long period of strong growth, so there’s some trade-off there.” —Upper moderate specialty store chain

“You see seasonal presentations in ties, but why aren’t people doing seasonal in shirts?” —Upscale department store

“Furnishings business is good: increases driven by fit, collar treatment (some smaller collars) and color: purple is still strong and will evolve into pinks. The trick is to identify and call out the fashion newness. The fit evolution is helping to drive business in clothing and furnishings: our goal is to maximize opportunities.” —Major department store

What’s Needed to Improve Business?

“Service. It’s not like pulling a shirt off the rack. The customer wants to be shown what his options are. Especially when you’re talking about fitted, slim fit, regular fit. You can put up all the signs you want, but if someone isn’t there explaining it, it gets confusing. If you have a good sales associate, that’s going to be one of your better doors. It’s not a pick-me-up item anymore.” —Mid-tier department store

“We could use a better balance of models that can double as sport shirts or casual dress: more button-downs and fresh patterns or tonal solids in easy-to-coordinate fashion colors.” —Upper moderate specialty store chain