Karen Alberg Grossman
by Karen Alberg Grossman
Portrait of Karen for MR Magazine
Portrait of Karen for MR Magazine
One Merchant’s Lament, Everyone’s Problem

I spoke recently to a friend who’s the top merchant at an independent menswear store. He was a bit upset: a major luxury department store had just opened in his city and after only two weeks, they were already running full-page newspaper ads offering sizable discounts. This was early March; the weather had not yet turned and there was no apparent need to promote spring goods. “I truly welcome the competition,” this merchant told me. “But it would be far better to compete on a level playing field.”

He admits that he’s old-fashioned. “To me, winning isn’t about today; it’s an investment in the future. It should be about building a strong business model rather than using Black Friday to mark the beginning of endless sales…”

He goes on to talk about credibility: “We’ve been in business many decades and we’ve never played price games or promoted in season. We continue to do our own thing, regardless of what the competition does, and it’s always worked for us because we offer so much more: differentiated assortments, exceptional service, ongoing relationships, etc. But suddenly, it’s getting tougher.”

Acknowledging that competing with non-stop promotions at department stores is nothing new, this merchant explains that it’s become worse than ever since his key brands are now selling both the luxury stores and their off-price divisions (not to mention selling direct to consumers). “Our vendor base, which should be part of the solution, is instead part of the problem. We have many brands that perform extremely well for us, generating terrific sell-throughs at regular price. Yet these same vendors are now demanding orders from us that are 10 percent over last year. It’s tough to run our business that way, especially when these vendors are not giving us the protection we need to grow our full-price business, which is what reinforces their upscale image. Another unfortunate consequence of this is that I now spend a good 50 percent of my time on ‘vendor management.’ It’s a sad situation, especially since we all know that excessive promotions will ultimately kill the business for everyone.”

He mentions numerous once-great brands that have been destroyed by retailer promotions and that are now desperately trying to rebuild. “But how can they maintain credibility when some stores sell their goods at one price and others at a much lower price? I believe Mercedes does it right: with their very consistent one-price policy, promotions are allowed only in the last quarter so consumers who want a Mercedes have to pay the ticket price, no matter which dealership they shop. If only we could do that with luxury apparel…”

He concludes by sharing his belief that this is a time of amazing opportunity for luxury independents. “We can uber-service our customers, provide exclusive product and added value, up the game in merchandising and relationship-building, hire the best tailors and the most talented, well paid sellers, build and renovate beautiful stores in the best locations, raise the bar on systems and visuals and websites. But if vendors are not willing to patrol their sales and ensure that retailers are not devaluing their brand, it’s all in vain. A few luxury vendors do this: they take product out of stores where it’s not productive and/or enforce penalties if agreements are not upheld. But too many have let the situation get out of control.”

From a consumer point of view, I agree. I am no longer willing to pay full price on brands I see consistently in the luxury outlets since I know this product will keep appearing at big discounts. (And in menswear, who can even tell if it’s last year’s goods?) Yet with just a little help from vendors who protect stores that maintain price and enhance brand image, who refrain from selling full in-season assortments to off-price stores, all of this could evolve fairly on a level playing field, and ultimately benefit everyone. Isn’t this a better way to play the game?


  1. Sell the department stores, have off price outlets, sell direct to consumer and you are still buying from them Think I might see the problem.

  2. Karen, we need leadership. The men’s specialty stores need to “unionize”.

    We need to seek vendors that will not sell against us. My biggest vendors are now my biggest competitors, and they wonder why I am cutting my buys.

    They open their own stores, sell on line. and even open their own outlets. Its become outrages. I had one vendor send me 1000 catalogs to pass out to my customers–so they could buy on their on line site?? Can you believe that? I called them to ask–What am i missing here???

    No MORALS-all about MONEY–I feel for the sales reps–such wonderful people, as they watch their company’s destroy their business.

    We need to UNIONIZE–drop vendors that compete against us–either on line, in their own stores or discounters. We need to go as a group of buyers–lay down money and support them–there are many new great vendors that will work with us.

    We need LEADERSHIP! The Mitchells & Boyds & DLS and many others need to step up. You can’t do it, as all the advertisers In MR are these vendors that are so abusive.

    Jim Crooks
    Clarion Pa.
    Since 1905

  3. The situations described above are a double edged sword. Retailers have a tendency to buy from many vendors, instead of focusing on vendors that protect them. They are afraid that they are missing out if they do not buy from certain brands. In addition, many retailers like to buy as little as possible upfront and as much as possible from stock. By doing such, inventory at vendors grows and they need outlets to get rid of overstock. Selling direct or via major stores is their only way out.

    Where are the merchants that will create excitement in their stores without the brands that became their own competition? Where are the salespeople that can sell product with conviction, even if the customers in their stores ask for a certain brand? Selling menswear or women’s wear is all about emotion and passion. I trust that there are vendors around, selling excellent merchandise and willing to protect their customers. However, it is a two way street and the situations described above are up to a certain extend a result of how a lot of retailers run their businesses.

    The sad thing is, that the new retail environment is not going to change back to where it once was. Retailers and vendors need to team up and make solid commitments to each other, while retailers need to be merchants again, instead of focusing on the so called big brands.

  4. In the 20 + years of owning and managing my own store I have rarely seeked out the big national and international brands. I searched for fashion,style and value.
    My staff are experienced menswear salesmen. ( be proud of the name salesman or woman,we are trained professionals).
    We know our product.We sell our selves and our store. We sell with confidence.We develop personal relationships that keep customers back month after month and year after year.
    Danny Basalone
    currently, Marcello Sport Fort Lauderdale
    formerly as Paul Daniels International Menswear

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