What is it about these ever-optimistic Southern menswear merchants who wrote the book on relationship building and see the glass as always half full? Maybe it’s their warmer weather, their less frenetic pace of life, or simply an innate passion for nice clothes and nice people. Here, we speak to a few Southern retailers for a dose of inspiration in these difficult times.
George Sherman Clothiers
George Sherman developed his passion for retail working with his dad in a shoe store, which his dad later purchased. George went on to open a namesake men’s store, now working with his brother Michael and talented buyer Trey Templeton. With Mississippi State University right outside his storefront, Sherman has had a pretty good year, following mandated store closings in March and April. “For most of our 48 years, we’ve had a collegiate business but it’s been shifting: our local customer base has matured and student purchases are no longer our foundation. If you could see how students dress these days, you’d understand…”
That said, there’s still lots of young people shopping the store, and counter to industry trend, Sherman reports healthy business in tailored clothing. “College seniors need suits for job interviews as well as fraternity/sorority parties and other social events. Once their parents realize it’s $200+ for rentals, a $495-$595 ticket seems a decent investment.”
In addition to suits (Baroni/MaxMan), Sherman is selling lots of Ibiza sportcoats and five-pocket pants from 34 Heritage. “These pants are incredible: our table keeps growing exponentially with new styles in twill, cord, and performance blends. Once a guy tries them on, he’s back for more. Add boots, a great sportcoat and a knit or woven shirt and you’re good to go anywhere. It’s the uniform for my generation.”
Other top sellers these days: TASC, Brax, Peter Millar, Johnnie-O, and anything with his own trademarked English bulldog logo, product he also sells online. Marketing includes videos on social media and monthly TV ads. Price promotions, on the other hand, are no longer a focal point. “Of course, we clear out end-season, but holiday sales don’t mean much anymore,” he explains. “My customers don’t demand it or expect it; Black Friday is for electronics and big box stores.”
Christa Harris & Casey Ferguson
Hutson Clothing Co.
“I think of the store like it’s Cheers,” says Hutson’s co-owner Christa Harris. “I’ve never seen anything like it: Customers know and care about each other and seem so happy to be here; they shop even if they don’t need anything. Their friendliness is extraordinary, even to a Canadian like me.”
Harris was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia and lived abroad for four years. She moved to Austin with her husband in 2002, helping open Nordstrom in 2003. For the next eight years, she managed the Nordstrom Shoe Salon and was a personal stylist. In 2011, she joined Hutson’s where she’s now a partner.
Her partner in the business is Casey Ferguson, a native Austinite who worked at a local men’s store while putting himself through UT. With impeccable taste and more than 20 years of menswear experience, he’s known to go above and beyond to make customers happy, a value he learned from Randy Hutson who founded the store in 2003 and retired two years ago. Ferguson and Harris are joined by their talented tailor Juan Valle, who learned the trade at age 13 from his father. Juan worked at Nordstrom for nine years until Harris persuaded him to join her at Hutson’s. “Juan takes great pride in his work and is a perfectionist about fit,” she observes. “We’re lucky to have him.”
While business in a pandemic is admittedly challenging, Hutson’s is doing well with vests, quarter zips, and five-pocket pants in both casual and dress fabrics (34 Heritage, Brax, Ballin). They’re also selling clothing from Jack Victor, Samuelsohn, and TailoRed, and boy’s suits from Calvin Klein and Lauren. Other strong brands include Johnnie-O, Peter Millar, Mizzen & Main, TASC, Stantt, Bill’s Khakis, and Zanella.
“It’s not easy today,” Harris admits. “Even though our customers have money, they’re not going anywhere so there’s no compelling reason for them to buy. That said, many are buying anyway. I’d say 85 percent of our sales are from loyal repeat customers and the rest are referrals.”
For this reason, Christa remains optimistic. “I predict that by 2022, we’re going to kill it: people will be so tired of wearing joggers and t-shirts! If local merchants can just stick it out, cut expenses where they can, and not overspend, we’ll be back stronger than ever!”
Johnson’s Department Store
It’s the store’s 82nd year in business and Don Webb, whose dad worked as store manager for the Johnson’s until he scraped together enough money to buy the store in the early ‘70s, has evolved the mix with the times. “We’re in a small town,” he explains, “so we can’t afford to be a niche business or we’d niche ourselves right out of business! We’ve evolved a good-better-best strategy fairly evenly divided among men’s, women’s, and footwear. In men’s, we were always the suit store in town. Now, with no church services and fewer, smaller weddings, we’re focusing on sportswear. We do well with Levi’s and Haggar but the growth is in better brands like 34 Heritage and Peter Millar.”
Also hot for holiday selling: Ugg footwear and New Balance super lightweight running shoes. Webb’s stance on price promotions is practical: “We don’t let our competition set our prices, nor do we have to be the cheapest. But our customers expect sales on Thanksgiving weekend so we have to stay in the game.”
Webb expresses tremendous appreciation for his devoted staff and loyal customers, appreciation that’s grown with the pandemic. “Since we carry work shoes for doctors and nurses, we were allowed to stay open in April; I was so touched by how many customers called to make appointments, who came and spent money.”
Asked what he learned from his dad when they worked together, Webb doesn’t hesitate. “I majored in accounting and was always very numbers-oriented. My dad cautioned me to not get too caught up in the numbers, to focus instead on taking care of customers. When I bought my first home, my dad sensed my anxiety about mortgage payments. “Just take care of the store,” he advised me, “and the store will take care of your house.”
M.H. Frank Ltd.
Clemson, South Carolina
“The people who shop with us are loyal: loyalty a big thing in the South,” insists Steve Poteet, who’s been with M.H. Frank for his entire career. “We’ve spent half a century building our clientele,” he explains. “Although we’re in a small town (population 10-12,000), we have loyal customers in California, Michigan, New York. We don’t do e-commerce but we have a mailing list of 10,000, 7,800 followers on Facebook, and 5,300 on Instagram. These days, we’re doing lots of virtual selling.”
Poteet started his retail career at The University Shop, working part-time while in college in Kentucky. The business was founded by Marvin Henry Frank who grew his brand to 37 storefronts near college campuses. When Mr. Frank offered Poteet a permanent job upon graduation, he jumped at the chance, moving around to various locations before settling in Clemson in 1973. He ultimately bought the store from Mr. Frank (who recently died at age 96). “He was both a father figure and a mentor to me,” Poteet explains. “He taught me that business happens when you reach out to your customers, not when you sit around and wait for them to come in.”
Selling well these days: Peter Millar, Jack Victor, Ballin, Barbour, Baroni, 34 Heritage, David Donahue, Martin Dingman, Alden, Ingram, Alan Paine, and three patented versions of their own Tiger-logo product for Clemson’s Tiger fans. “We post photos of our logo items every day and get dozens of calls; it’s a terrific business!”
Ever the optimist, Steve looks at current business with the attitude that sales will be easy to beat next year. “When I used to call Mr. Frank to complain about business, he didn’t want to hear it. “Let me stop you right there,’ he’d tell me. ‘When you laugh, people are with you; when you cry, you cry alone…’”
Michael Jablaoui Sr & Michael Jablaoui Jr
Michael’s Men’s Store & Tailoring
Michael Jablaoui Sr has a lifelong passion for tailoring, beginning at age 16 when he hand-crafted clothing for friends and family. Leaving his native Lebanon in his early 20s, he began his new life in the States as a tailor in a small shop in a small Florida town between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Harbor. When the adjacent men’s store went out of business, Jablaoui decided to try his hand at retailing and bought the store in 1983. The combination tailor shop/men’s boutique a block from the ocean turned out to be a good move, for both him and his son Michael Jr, now running the business.
“I grew up in this area, graduated college in computer science, and had a few jobs in programming and IT,” says Michael Jr. “But I missed working with people! Observing how much fun my dad was having going to work every day, I decided to join him in the business.”
Selling well pre-holiday: 34 Heritage five-pockets (“super comfortable, great fit!”), Zanella fashion, Peter Millar, St Croix, Tori Richards, and Robert Graham shirts and sportcoats. Key clothing brands are Hart Schaffner Marx, Jack Victor, and some Hickey Freeman.
“I’m very thankful to our customers,” says Jablaoui Sr. “Even though the fashion direction is casual, lots of our guys still dress up so we’re doing okay. I’m also extremely grateful to be living in America, the best country in the world. But how I wish people would be nicer to each other! There’s no other country like ours: people with ideas are the force that makes America great. So rather than fight with each other, we need to step up, create, contribute, and do whatever we can to build a future together.” Amen to that Michael!