Menswear Mailers Dressing for Success

Etiquette maven Emily Post once said that corporate dress codes “often reflect the nature and culture of a business, and the business fashion of the times.” Of course, Post never lived to see the dress-down look of the 1990s and early 2000s. But though polo shirts and khakis have dominated U.S. offices for several years, suits and ties are making a comeback. For a number of menswear catalogers, that’s welcome news indeed.

According to London-based strategic marketing firm Euromonitor International, while the overall size of the U.S. menswear market decreased in 2002 by 1.9%, sales of dress suits and sports jackets increased 3.4% from 2001.

What’s more, Port Washington, NY-based research firm NPD Group/NPD Fashionworld reports that overall retail unit sales in the tailored-clothing category (which includes suits and sports coats) increased 24.3% between July 2001 and July 2003, from 33.4 million to 43.9 million units sold.

As Schlomo Kantrowitz, owner of New Haven, CT-based Epic Menswear, points out, many offices are again requiring that male employees dress in collared shirts that can accommodate ties. “Even khakis are reserved for one day a week now,” he says. “Offices have been finding that when there’s a relaxed atmosphere with more employees dressing down, efficiency tends to dwindle.”

In response to demand, Epic Menswear mailed its first print catalog in July to 500,000 requesters and customers. The company launched as an online-only marketer of big and tall men’s apparel five years ago. “People realized their wardrobes were insufficient for what the workplace is now demanding,” Kantrowitz says.

Benefiting from rising unemployment

Not only are more workplaces enforcing dress codes, but rising unemployment is leading job-hunting executives to invest in interview-suitable attire.

At Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, men’s suits, dress shirts, and ties are “clearly the leading categories we have” — all up “over double digits” from last year, says senior vice president of marketing Jerry DeBoer.

“It’s a combination of business sloppy just not being accepted anymore,” DeBoer says, “and — I hate to say it — unemployment. If you’re going for a job interview, you’re more apt to look for a tie. We’ve noticed this particularly in the Washington area. Over the past 12-18 months, we’ve definitely returned to a suit-and-tie cycle.”

The Baltimore-based cataloger retailer is devoting 30% more space in its catalogs to suits, dress shirts, and ties than it did two years ago. Overall, business dresswear now represents 75% of the catalog’s offerings, up from 50% in 2001.

The catalogs also devote more space to educating its customers about the company’s three “levels of luxury,” reflected in the varying thread counts, buttons, and other detailings of its suits. “The average consumer doesn’t know about thread count unless we explain it and teach it,” DeBoer says.

To accommodate the popularity of its dress shirts, Jos. A. Bank is offering all of its shirts in 47 sizes and six colors, as well as big and tall sizes for the first time. In the past, only the best-selling dress shirts were offered in all sizes.

Gone altogether are jeans, which are still available in the company’s stores but not in the catalog. “We weren’t getting the productivity from jeans in the catalog anymore,” DeBoer says.

Cataloger/retailer Brooks Brothers has also shifted its merchandise mix. “Companywide, we’re not focusing on casualwear as strongly as we did a few years ago,” says director of database marketing Tracy Stoesser. In the months since its November 2002 purchase by Retail Brand Alliance, the New York-based marketer has returned to its roots as an upscale purveyor of tailored apparel. “We’ve introduced additional, more expensive lines of suiting while improving the quality of our lines,” Stoesser says.

Sales of suits this year have led to a double-digit increase in total sales at Paul Fredrick MenStyle. “Our whole line is ‘updated classics,’” explains Allen Abbott, senior vice president of marketing for the Fleetwood, PA-based cataloger. “We’re not out there selling four-button suit models or overly fashion-forward patterns. We’re still selling solids and stripes, and they’ve all been successful.”

Circulation outreach

Like many of its competitors, Paul Fredrick has been active in courting businessmen who have moved away from casual workwear. “We’ve been aggressive from a customer acquisition standpoint, building our house file at a time when other catalogers have been stagnant,” Abbott says, noting that the company’s circulation is up 20% this year.

“When the dot-com implosion became fairly apparent, we hoped — and turned out to be right — that people would move away from wearing jeans or khakis and a T-shirt to work,” Abbott says. “So we made a concerted effort to merchandise to that change before it was apparent that the changeover back to dressier clothes was happening. This way, we were out there with the offering when people were ready for it.”

Charleston, SC-based menswear cataloger/retailer Ben Silver hasn’t had to shift its merchandise mix; the $10 million company has always specialized in upscale office dresswear. But whereas the company’s typical customer was 45-65 years old, younger shoppers are driving the company’s 20% increase in sales this year. “We’re now seeing guys in their 20s through 40s wanting to buy a nice dress shirt and tie,” says Ben Silver’s managing director Robert Prenner.

Rather than expand its merchandise offering, Ben Silver is trying to broaden its reach by renting “lists we may not have used in the past,” Prenner says. “For instance, we may go to a household where there is the younger/middle-aged person who’s looking for this clothing who may never have heard of us before.”

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