“There is in most Americans some spark of idealism that can be fanned into a flame. It takes sometimes a divining rod to find what it is, but when found…the results are often most extraordinary.” – Justice Louis Brandeis, 1953
At a time when what’s at stake in our world is so much bigger than selling suits, it’s sometimes hard to focus on day-to-day details. But merchants and manufacturers who don’t focus on reinventing their businesses and redefining core values might not make it through these turbulent times. The triple tragedy of COVID-19, recession, and violent protests has retailers reporting May volume at 20-60 percent of normal, with not enough customers ready to shop physical stores. Still, creative and determined merchants and manufacturers are starting to make real changes, giving me renewed faith that our industry will survive and ultimately prosper in its new incarnation, whatever that may be. And that a more just, compassionate and color-blind America will be well worth the temporary sacrifices.
Here, a few random thoughts from some thoughtful retailers.
Scott Shapiro, Syd Jerome, Chicago:
Shapiro spent every day of the past few months in his closed store, contacting his 200 vendors about cancelling orders and payment terms. While closed, Shapiro still did $200,000 in gift cards (many were $500 or more in conjunction with a limited-time offer for half-off any sale item). The store re-opened May 29th and its hottest item has been Italo Ferretti silk masks with washable cotton insets. “The silk filters out the microstatic molecules and the cotton gets everything else,” Shapiro explained to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter documenting his re-opening.
He also told of how rioters smashed a window on the first Saturday night: fortunately, a security guard was able to deter the looters until Shapiro arrived with a gun. The two of them somehow managed to keep the burglars away. “I’m not letting this deter us,” he proclaimed, acknowledging that only time will tell if this will be the new normal.
Bruce Levitt, Mur-Lees Men’s & Boys, Lynbrook, NY:
Levitt has been successful using Facetime Live: his energy and positivity come across and customers are responding. His most recent post this week was announcing Phase 2 re-opening and all the fabulous product in-store for Father’s Day.
From yesterday’s Facebook Live post: “Our hot item is pocket square face masks: there are free ones for the first ten customers coming into the store. And they’re coming in, calling for appointments, shopping online… We’ve gotten in a lot of new stuff for Father’s Day—Peter Millar, Bugatchi, Robert Graham– and have some great sales, up to 40 percent off. Since you’re spending more time at home, we’ve brought in great tees, sneakers and swimwear. We’re ready for you!”
Howard Vogt, Rodes, Louisville, KY:
“Rodes is in a stand-alone location six miles from downtown so the store wasn’t looted; were we in our old downtown location, we would have been destroyed. So I feel lucky: many of my fellow retailers have boarded up; we haven’t. And thanks to Derby season, we ordered and received spring goods very early as always; much was delivered in December/January so it was paid for before the pandemic.
We re-opened just two weeks ago; the official regulation is 30 percent capacity but we’ve got so many square feet it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that people seem not yet in the mood to shop. But business will open up: I’d say 25 percent of my customers won’t come in until there’s a vaccine, 25 percent think the pandemic is a hoax, and 50 percent will be comfortable shopping once we get them excited about product. Fortunately, we’ll have Derby the first week in September. With or without a full live audience, people will dress up for Derby parties.
Right now, we’re closed Mondays except for appointments. Some customers really appreciate the safety of private shopping. Last Monday, I saw four good customers and it was a productive day. Made-to-measure is clearly the bright spot: with fall deliveries uncertain, it’s the best way to ensure customers get what they want.”
Andy Weil, Pockets, Dallas and Plano, TX
“To move forward productively, I’ve assessed all my vendors and payables, considering things like: how important am I to them, how easy are they to work with? I reached out to 95 percent of my vendors to negotiate discounts and/or dating. From those who had shipped spring early, I asked for less.
I’m also asking for help with fall ’20 goods: confirming ship dates and cadence, requesting discounts and dating. Most vendors want to work out a mutual satisfying compromise; most are more interested in a future relationship than cash-in-hand. But bottom line, there are lots of unknowns re: fall deliveries. Who knows how much won’t be produced.”
David Rubenstein, New Orleans:
“Fortunately, the demonstrations here were peaceful. But the store is quiet because our mayor has kept the city shut down although the Governor opened the state up to Stage #2. We need the city to “open” for visitors; we need busy hotels, restaurants and bars. Most of our business has been clothing: special orders for clothes horses and for special events. Our sportswear is very slow. Who knows what lies ahead…
One idea that I think could work is collaborations with non-apparel businesses, e.g. posting ads for our same-day tailoring on the websites of restaurants that still have a dress code. We’ve got to try new things!”
Eliot Rabin, Peter Elliot, Manhattan
“Although the whole upper east side is boarded up, I didn’t do it: I thought that would antagonize the looters even more and if they wanted to break through the boards, they could. And realistically, what are they going take? I’m not selling Rolexes; how badly do they want a few linen shirts? I’ve had a few run-ins with unruly visitors but so far, I’m dealing with it. And I’m doing some business, of course with social distancing and masks, gloves, etc. I’m even selling neckwear- who would have thought? Our windows are colorful and color is a driving factor.”
David Levy, Levys Nashville:
“We’re working with key vendors to do half-hour webinars for our customers. We have one today with Corneliani that will include a few minutes of company history, a fashion show (with Wes and Zack as models) and a Q&A with customers. We’ve been open three weeks and while traffic is hardly booming, our sales to walk-in customers is better than expected. I’m gratified by how many say they want to shop local.
“We’re also sending out Style Boxes that seem to be sticking since our sales associates know our customers so well. Of course, clothing will be the category to watch (but we just sold three ‘rush order’ Joshua Trent label MTM suits…) Bottom line: Retailers who don’t embrace change and put everything on the table might not make it. While the PPP extension allowed us to bring everyone back, we need to cut losses as fast as possible while changing everything to face the future. Not easy, but I’m loving the challenge.”
Wally Naymon, Kilgore Trout, Cleveland:
“All is as well as can be expected here as we deal with the double whammy of COVID and social unrest. Not a real great time for retail but, as always, I believe we’ll all be better for the experience. One thing for sure: the need for social change has never been more apparent.”