by Brian Lipton

Marshall Simon knows a lot about the retail clothing business. His family was the owner of Lauri’s, a famed women’s clothing store in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he had his first job at age 13 (as a maintenance man). So it was hardly surprising 27 years ago that he decided to buy Gwynn’s of Mt. Pleasant (which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary), which had established itself as a popular emporium for men’s and women’s clothing in Charleston, South Carolina. Since then, he has made Gwynn’s more of a success than ever in the intervening decades, facing numerous challenges along the way. “I always say you need to have lint in your blood to really want to do this,” he says with a laugh.

His first move was to change much of the merchandise the store was selling, especially in the men’s department. “When I bought the store, we were primarily selling brands like Duckhead, Dickie’s, and Timberland,” he recalls. “I knew I wanted to escalate our resources, and I also knew I had to do it step by step, so as not to alienate our existing customers, while bringing in new customers.”

Simon thought he had hit pay dirt in September 2008, when the store landed Ermengildo Zegna as an account. “Back then if you didn’t have one of the big three Italian brands – Zegna, Armani and Canali — you couldn’t get any of them,” he notes. “The Zegna account in town had closed, which opened the door for us. So they interviewed us along withal the men’s stores in downtown Charleston. Yes, we got it in right before the big recession, when most people stopped spending money on such expensive suits. But some people bought Zegna anyway, and now it’s our biggest men’s brand.  We also keep a lot of it in stock. I know it’s expensive to keep so much high-end inventory on hand, but I also find it harder to sell from an empty wagon. I would say it’s the real linchpin our store.”

Tailored clothing accounts for about 50 percent of men’s sales  — sportswear accounts for most of the rest, although Simon sees a growing business in fragrances, skincare and accessories — and over the years, the store has added not just Canali and Armani to its roster, but Brunello Cuccinelli, and more recently, Isaia and Ferragamo. “We have an exclusive on most of these brands in South Carolina. We really want to be the luxury store in our state,” he says. “That’s one reason we recently added these private shopping suites for men; it’s in an area just off the main floor, and it has a fully stocked bar. It’s someplace where we can treat our customers nicely, and our customers appreciate this.”

Catering to the customer is another key to the store’s success. “We know we’re fighting e-commerce, vendors who sell direct and other stores, but we try to combat all that by offering the best service possible,” he notes. “One of our secret weapons is our customer loyalty program; if you spend $2,000 you get a $200 gift certificate good anywhere in the store. I think it’s very generous. “We are also not a promotional-based store; we only have sales twice a year,” he adds. “I think the idea is to sell as much as possible at regular price. Stores have to stop discounting their inventory so early. I don’t think you should be cutting prices on spring/summer merchandise until Labor Day. We have to be selling winter goods in winter, which down here doesn’t start until January. That’s the only way our margins will all increase.”

Simon notes that the store’s customer base has changed over the years, which has also fueled its success. “Lots of people are moving down here from metropolitan areas, either as full-timers or second home owners, and they are seeking us out because they know our brands,” he says. “As for the tourists, we don’t get them. While we’re just a few minutes from downtown Charleston, we’re across the bridge – so we’re off the beaten path. I believe our mission is to cater to the locals in Mt. Pleasant.”

And if you want to see what Gwynn’s is all about, well, you’ll have to visit Mt. Pleasant. “We have considered a second location, but we’ve decided to keep our headaches centralized. The fact is the retail business is different when you own your building and land, which I do. We know rents keep escalating in Charleston; and many stores don’t have the margins to make up the difference. We don’t want to be in that position. Still, we’re going to continue to evolve, while staying client-focused. It’s gotten us this far.”