While some retailers tout e-commerce and total reinvention, these merchants sell nice clothes at a fair price with a good dose of old-fashioned hospitality.
When Keith Kinkade left Texas to attend college at Ole Miss, he’d never seen a football game. While in college, he learned more than football, working as a houseboy at a sorority (don’t ask what he learned there…) and also at a local men’s store whose owner had worked for menswear icon Billy Neville. Ultimately, Kinkade moved to Jackson and went to work for Neville, buying the business with a partner in ‘05 and selling his share in ’08 to venture out on his own.
“We were lucky,” Kinkade recalls. “We moved to Ridgeland six months ahead of the crowd. It’s a crossroads location and a great place for a store: 10 minutes from Jackson and five minutes from Madison.”
Kinkade recently expanded his fabulous, farmhouse-inspired store (3000+ square feet) and credits success to a very cohesive team: four full-time sellers, six in support staff, and four part-timers. “No one is on commission (we use goals and bonuses) and our mission is simple: we strive to be better every day!”
Selling well now: five-pocket pants (Brax, 34 Heritage, Ballin wools), fall fashion from Faherty, Johnnie O (quarter zips, flannels, a great sweater in a gray camo print), flannels from Alan Paine, and lots of On footwear. Opening at $295, suits still do well for weddings: key brands here are Coppley (both custom and off the rack), Empire, Peerless, and Baroni (MaxMan).
As important as product: special events with a very personal touch. Every Father’s Day, Kinkade has customers send photos with their dads and/or kids, then runs a massive collage ad in the local newspaper. (“I lost my dad when I was 18 so this is a tribute to him.”) Every Thanksgiving, the store gives out 200 home-baked pecan pies. Of course, Santa comes into the store at Christmas for photo ops with the kids (this year, Santa will stand behind the big leather chair), with brownies, cookies and treats for all. Also to kick off the holidays: a ladies day (25 percent off a $150+ purchase) and numerous outside events, e.g. a local Mistletoe Market. In-store holiday gift-wrap is assisted by local high school and college volunteers who come to help.
“I’m not your typical fashion guy,” Kinkade confides, crediting his wife Missy for providing much fashion direction and advice over the years. “I’m a balding 50-year-old with a belly who drives a pick-up truck and wears what my customers wear. If you call the store at 8:00 am or 11:00 pm, it rings to my cell phone. We have a website (our 32-page fashion catalog is posted on our site) but we’re not yet doing e-commerce. Our strength is treating customers like family.”
HARRY MAYER CLOTHIERS
Without speaking a word of English, Harry Mayer Sr. emigrated to the U.S. in 1937. He found a job at a local department store, ultimately becoming a manager, before opening his own store in 1972. His son Harry Mayer Jr. left Mississippi State to take over the business in 1981 when his dad got cancer: he now runs the business with help from his daughter Michelle.
“Meridian is a small city in a large trade area, 17 miles from the Alabama line,” Harry explains. His philosophy is simple: “We’re a relationship store, not a transaction store.” Key brands include Southern Tide, Patagonia, Peter Millar, 34 Heritage, AG, Mizzen & Main. While sales to date are off a little due to shutting down in April and May, they’re planned up for holiday (at regular price!) “We’ll do an old-fashioned price promotion for Thanksgiving and then go back to regular price in December. I don’t think we’ll need markdowns to move goods, but I’m taking advantage of many off-price opportunities in the market. Our state has done a great job opening up and people are shopping.”
Mayer says he’s learned a lot from the pandemic. “I now know we can operate with less product and fewer people if we intensify service (we personally deliver even small orders) and do more focused advertising. We’ve dropped TV commercials and stepped up Facebook and Instagram. We just launched a new website and we’re building our ladies business, currently 20 percent of the mix and growing.”
What’s he most excited about, looking ahead? His first grandchild, Anna, recently born to Michelle.
BERNARD’S STORE FOR MEN
Rusty Richardson has a simple strategy for growing the business: “Pamper your customers to death and hope they’ll come back.” He began working for Bernard’s in 1974 as a 16-year-old high school student and worked there through college. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in marketing, he was promoted to store manager. Store owner Bernard Weinstein died suddenly in July 1980; in 1988, Richardson bought the store where he’d worked since he was a teenager.
Built in 1895 with the tailor shop added in 1905, Bernard’s remains a pillar of the Jasper community. Even with the pandemic and a mandated 50 percent maximum occupancy this summer, readers of Alabama Magazine chose Bernard’s Store for Men as “Best Men’s Boutique in Alabama” and Alabama Retailer magazine ran a major feature on the store in its November 2020 issue.
According to Richardson, business has come back strong (both casual and dress-up) since the spring shutdown thanks to rescheduled weddings plus the return of football. Key sportswear brands include Patagonia, Polo Ralph Lauren, Kuhl, Southern Point, Southern Tide, Southern Marsh, GenTeal, Coastal Cotton, Mountain Khakis, and, for Alabama and Auburn fans, all things Tuskwear and Tigerwear. “Cooler weather has increased sales of quarter zips, long sleeve wovens, all kinds of vests, sweaters, and the new Patagonia puff jackets and pullovers.”
And counter to the industry trend, tailored clothing is doing well. “Hart Schaffner Marx is our number one brand,” says Richardson. “But we also carry, from Peerless, Hilfiger, Lauren, and Kors and we do a nice job with large sizes from Harmony. My advice to retailers who have dropped tailored clothing is to get back into it. With celebrations rescheduled, it’s a tremendous traffic builder as grooms and groomsmen make three to four trips to the store for alterations, adjustments, etc.”
Another helpful tip: Richardson believes that menswear stores should offer a little something for the ladies, which he does from Patagonia and Kuhl. He’s also launching an e-commerce site to better serve local customers, and to hopefully gain new ones. “We learn more every day,” he maintains. “And we pray a lot!”
THE LOCKER ROOM
College football was always the big driver for Alex Gatewood’s 56-year-old menswear business in Tuscaloosa. “Pre-pandemic, for each student, an average six family members would come into town for games but only two would have tickets so the other four would likely go shopping. Since the pandemic, with stadium capacity now at 20,000 rather than 100,000, it’s not the same…”
But business is pretty good. During their five-week shutdown, Gatewood was able to fill orders online; business has picked up since, mostly at regular price. Key brands include Peter Millar, Cole Haan, Barbour (their waxed jacket flies out), 34 Heritage (“we just sold 39 pairs”), and Ralph Lauren. Sportcoats from Empire are reordering, and their private label Elephantwear collection is consistently strong. In fact, masks with the elephant logo ($20 retail) are selling out quickly: 20 percent of each purchase goes to a local food bank; the store recently was able to make a $6000 donation.
And speaking of masks, Gatewood insists they’re now worn in the store at all times, as mandated by the state and confirmed by a sign at the door. “We hand out masks to customers who don’t have them and make sure they wear them. But just the other day, a guy walked in with no mask and a big pistol and I didn’t say a damn word to him.”