Jamie Davidson of Strong Suit says retailers that want to grow must actively court younger men by hiring younger sellers, stocking trend-right clothing at opening price and marketing aggressively.
As creative director for a new brand called Strong Suit (canvas clothing, Italian fabrics, great fit, retails under $600, created to help independents compete for customers shopping Suit Supply or J. Crew), I recently gave a talk to a group of merchants. There were lots of opinions on why their business wasn’t as strong as they’d like — the internet, discount chains, having to compete against their own vendors, etc. But while all these factors play a part in a bigger equation, the fact is that if your business isn’t growing, it’s likely because you need more new customers. In an era where young guys are perfectly happy to order off the internet (and often uncomfortable walking into a store filled with suits that cost more than their rent), there’s a real chance these young customers might never enter your store.
Do you need them? Absolutely! No matter how secure you feel with your existing customer base, Baby Boomers are not the future. So no matter how expensive your top end product, you need some opening pricepoints.
As I see it, there are two major opportunities for stores like yours to change the game — who you’re hiring and what you’re buying.
1) Hire your target customer. After visiting the best stores all over the country in the last two years, I noticed something surprising — a real lack of young talent on the floor. With a few exceptions, there are not a lot of young faces working in these stores. When I started working in this business I did it because I loved it. I imagine that is the same for everyone who is reading this. I think the most I ever made was $9 an hour in the early 90’s. Because of a new passion for clothing (men’s business grew faster than women’s last year for the first time in decades, driven mostly by millennials), young people are not only our target demographic, they’re also our greatest opportunity for exceptional sellers. Stores have to make a real effort to hire them.
2) Rethink your resource structure. Most of you guys have been in the game for a long time, so I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business. But I would ask you to consider the fact that most stores dedicate 90% of their resources to an aging and shrinking demographic. This extends beyond what you’re buying to include your marketing spend. The days of simply bringing in a line that appeals to a younger clientele and hoping that they wander in and find it are long over. Invest in marketing that brings this new customer to your door and invest in your culture so that he feels comfortable once he arrives. If you can create an experience in your store that trumps the convenience of the Internet, you can make inroads toward this new demographic.
Another conversation I’ve had with many skeptical retailers is their concern surrounding an entry-level price point — the perception that they will start to “downsell” existing customers from a more expensive suit to a cheaper one. But according to merchants who carry Strong Suit (Taylor Richards & Conger, Boyds, Kilgore Trout, AK Rikks, George Bass, to name a few), those fears are unwarranted. The guy who is buying a label in your store wants the label. However, he might not want to spend $3,000 on a navy tuxedo or something more adventurous, like flannel or double breasted. But he will drop $600 — and if he only wears it three times a season then, no harm done. Glen Taylor, at Taylor Richards & Conger in Charlotte, N.C., was the first to notice this. In other words, it’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity.
A lot of retailers may read this and say, “I have an opening price point and young guys don’t buy it.” It still has to be the right thing. Young guys want a great looking suit with great fabrics but they just can’t afford to pay $2,000. So price is important, but it still has to be something they want.
Younger guys are buying suits in greater numbers than we’ve seen in decades. And the exciting part is that they’re buying them because they want them, not because they need them. The key question now is: Can they buy them from you?
Jamie Davidson is a former retail salesman who’s founded several brands: Normandy and Monroe in 2001, TreVero in 2005 and Strong Suit in 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.