by Robert Ordway
Robert Ordway

Independent menswear stores get it: the days of “stack it high and watch it fly” are long gone, and generating foot traffic, amidst a pandemic nonetheless, is changing the landscape for all. Between government shutdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing, e-commerce brands have come out ahead in 2020 as evidenced by Amazon’s exponential growth. Retailers should rethink aspects of their business model by borrowing from both online direct-to-consumer brands and custom clothiers.

As we know, selling luxury goods requires trust, which is built over time and done in person. It has been shown across industries that referrals are still the greatest way to build your book. The key is figuring out how to create a pipeline that ultimately leads to that (post-COVID) handshake. As someone who has been involved in civic life for over a decade, I’ve learned that a donor list is the most important asset to a political or non-profit organization. In the case of retailers, it’s your client list. Building it requires aggressive prospecting via two methods: social media and direct-prospecting.

While social media has helped direct-to-consumer brands get off the ground, it is now a saturated market. Despite not having a store lease, these companies are now forced to redirect their increased margins toward expensive ad and retargeting campaigns. While their strategy is to sell a product online, yours is to build a relationship. This can be done by sending ‘rented’ traffic from social media to a landing page where an offer is proposed (such as a free e-book or discount) in exchange for their email. Now you have ‘owned’ traffic, and access to their inbox at a much lower cost. But use it wisely or face the wrath of the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

While big businesses throw out generic emails with little value, independent stores have the ability to micro-target. Birthday cards, anniversaries, and other personal messages should be the baseline of one’s marketing. Free content is king when it comes to building trust over the internet; better a soft sell story than a hard-sell ad. Since retailers have little free time, hiring a contractor to write blogs or produce videos builds credibility and enhances your Google ‘authority’ on the web. It’s important to note that Millennials are now close to 40 and regardless of income level, we all do our research online before stepping into a store.

A friend of mine has recently turned the jewelry industry on its head in Chicago. He’s selling high-end diamonds from Google reviews, driven by ‘thank you’ emails sent after a sale. Unlike his older competitors, who spend big dollars on billboards and then wait for foot traffic, he offers a concierge delivery service in the city and has established himself as the ‘preferred jeweler’ in many high-rise buildings downtown. With quarterly events, he now has the residential management companies pumping his brand to all their tenants, at no cost to him.

Humans are like electrons and choose the path-of-least-resistance. In a world of convenience, if they aren’t buying from e-commerce, they want you to visit them at their home or office. This requires retailers to think of themselves as image consultants. Success in this model (in my opinion) is best represented by Q Clothier/Rye 51 based in Dallas. Their sales force receives a generous commission compared to industry standards but they are required to go out and beat the street. This is where young people often struggle.

Circling back to social media, friending your clients on LinkedIn and Facebook is a great way to prospect existing clients for referrals. One method custom clothiers use is sending out a personalized gift certificate for, let’s say, a free custom shirt to five of their friends (pre-qualified prospects). Those opportunities give you a foot in the door to prove why you’re the best person to be dressing them from that day forward. Ultimately, a house visit with spousal approval can lead to a full ‘wardrobe audit’ and a client for life.

For years I’ve seen retailers and custom clothiers operate in silos when there’s a real synergy in sharing marketing tactics and client-building strategies. As we look toward the holiday season and a new year, remember that “past performance is not indicative of future results” so let’s plan to evolve as nature intended.

Robert Ordway is the owner of Capitol Hill Clothiers. He is the former owner and founder of Rusted Oak, a menswear store in Indiana.