There are industry experts who believe that disruption is the only way for retailers to stay in business; others believe the better strategy is to consistently deliver the finest apparel, wardrobing expertise, and service in a friendly unpretentious atmosphere. The latter approach reflects the vision of Lionel Smith (aka Smitty) who, in 1976, founded his eponymous 2,500 square-foot store in Aiken, South Carolina with family savings, a serious work ethic, and a dream.
This highly-acclaimed menswear emporium is now run by Smitty’s son Van who bought out his dad in 1992 and made his talented associate Danny Minolfo his business partner in 2013. Minolfo had worked at Belk through high school and college; he joined Lionel Smith part-time during his junior year and switched to full-time when he graduated in 1999. (Independent retailers without a succession plan: take note!)
“My dad understood early on that there’s no way to out-Walmart Walmart so better to take the high road and offer exceptional quality and service,” Van explains. “When I took over in ‘92, my goal was to maintain the broad mix of upscale inventory but make it more profitable by dropping slower selling brands. My dad always believed in testing new designers and we’ve continued that focus. We also try to streamline inventory by eliminating duplication. My dad still preaches quality over quantity: better to sell two great shirts than 10 cheap ones.”
According to Van and Danny, made to measure is now driving sales in suits, shirts, trousers, and formalwear; Coppley, S.Cohen, iDesign, Individualized and Stantt are key vendors here. And despite rumors about the demise of neckwear, the store sells a ton of ties, including Robert Talbott at $155 retails. “Neckwear has always been our niche,” says Van. “Especially our famous colorful Smitty ties. And of course we sell lots of sportswear: Peter Millar is now our number one brand but we still do really well with Southern Tide and Robert Talbott, top brands for the past ten years.” Breaking down total store volume, sportswear generates about 50 percent of the mix, clothing about 35 percent, and furnishings and accessories
Although their assortment is largely “southern classic with flair,” Van and Danny pride themselves on leading customers to a more sophisticated mix. “We don’t push head-to-toe looks from one brand,” Van explains. Says Danny, “We believe in color, but not peacock-y. We sell a lot of five-pocket trousers so we might show a pair of Brax five-pocket pants with a Robert Talbott shirt, a Peter Millar quarter-zip vest, a Jack Victor sportcoat and a perfect pocket square. Or instead of another pair of khakis, we’ll sell them Ballin pants in their new shade of saddle.”
What’s more, they’re not ignoring the more contemporary guys. Explains Danny, “It’s tough to capture Millennials as they’re less loyal and more likely to shop online. But we’re growing our marketing on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and customized email blasts) and the young guys we have are very loyal, directing friends and colleagues to our store.”
Other tricks of the trade: although the store is mostly men’s, they do bring in some women’s (Remy leathers, OHM footwear), on consignment if possible. “We pay our bills on time so we can sometimes make this happen,” says Van, “especially for brands that need penetration in the southeast.” Another success secret is the TV advertising that first put them on the map. “We were the first commercial on our local Good Morning America channel so guys getting dressed at 7:00 am were sure to see us.”
Asked the best advice he ever received from his dad, Van is thoughtful. “Make sure that every customer walks out the door happy, whatever it takes.” Sometimes, the most fundamental business tenets are still the most compelling.
Photos by Brent Cline