At a typical Apple Computer retail store, you see crowds of people trying out products, discussing them with fellow customers, and a staff that answers questions with long, detailed responses, rather than spending time in short, sales-oriented exchanges.
Now can you imagine if this were a men's clothing store, with guys hanging out looking at swatches and discussing seven-fold ties and benchmade shoes the way customers at Apple discuss software applications?
Bertrand Pellegrin not only believes it's possible, he believes it's necessary.
A San Francisco-based retail consultant whose clients include Gucci and Louis Vuitton, Pellegrin says every retailer asks him how they can be more like Apple. So a large portion of his new book, "Branding the Man: Why Men Are the Next Frontier in Fashion Retail," is devoted to what men's wear retailers can learn from other kinds of businesses popular with men.
Apparel spoke with Pellegrin about how men have changed while men's wear retail hasn't, and how stores need to change if they want to thrive in a competitive market.
Apparel: This project began as your master's thesis at the Academy of Art. What inspired your idea that men's wear retailing needs to be revamped?
Pellegrin: It actually happened in the opposite direction: It wasn't that retail needed to change, but that I looked around and realized men are changing. Over a really long period, since the late '80s, men are really starting to know about fabrics, that pleats make you look fatter, and all these small details. And it's regular guys, not just gays or men who live in Manhattan.
But then I started to see how the store hadn't changed, and the store is supposed to be your guide and nurture your sense of fashion. It certainly does that for women, but not really for men. So I thought about the potential to create a different kind of store environment. There's always this notion that men don't like to shop, but I don't believe that. If you give them the right environment, and if you instruct them properly, they can learn to appreciate the finer details of great clothes, and they will buy.
Apparel: So men have become more sophisticated, but stores are still aiming low?
Pellegrin: Yes. Men are more sophisticated because they have a lot more access to information, and they're getting more visual cues than ever before. Since the late '60s and '70s, when everyone started getting really casual, a whole generation really didn't grow up learning how to dress. And the new generation is relearning it: guys in their twenties are watching "Mad Men" and are discovering what it means to wear a suit. And then of course there's the Internet. YouTube has so many instructional videos.
Apparel: Tell us more about what's wrong with men's wear retail stores.
Pellegrin: I went suit shopping recently, and went to nearly every store in the [San Francisco] Bay Area to see what they're offering and how they're selling it to me. And it really is like going back in time. The environment is fusty. It's not a cool place, or a place you want to go hang out. It's where you get the job done and then leave.
So in my book I wonder: "What if it felt more like a men's clubhouse? What if it had all the aspects of an electronics store or a sports club? What if it became a really cool place where you were educated about fashion, but also things that have nothing to do with fashion, and by the way you can also shop here?"
So that's how I began to explore where men's stores are now, and where they could be, because they're still not places that anyone really wants to go to. I can't think of a single men's store where guys say: "Oh, I love to go there and hang out."
Apparel: There aren't any innovators in the marketplace?
Pellegrin: There are some that are breaking the rules, but a lot of them are preaching to the converted: They're made for guys who are very knowledgeable already. Second, the price points are very high. In the book I spend a lot of time talking about mixing price points and brands together, putting a Jil Sander suit next to a great pair of Levi's. Someone who has great style knows how to mix things together, and to me that's what a great store should also have.
J. Crew has started experimenting with this in its concept men's store by having Timex watches, restored Rolexes and Ray-Ban sunglasses mixed with their own merchandise.
An example of a place that's captured a great atmosphere is a surf shop in San Francisco called Mollusk. What works about it so well is that guys who are surfers love to just go and hang out. They've got a great couch and DVDs, t-shirts made by local artists, and the whole inside is made out of reclaimed wood. So it has a kind of '60s, Mendocino feeling to it; guys want to hang out there and shop, and that's what a great store should be.
Apparel: And you think that can be done on a much larger scale?
Pellegrin: I do. I've been consulting for a pretty big outdoor retailer that's looking to explore different ways of doing business, because the way they present themselves is very corporate. You get your down vest and you leave, and I think there's a way to make it more dynamic.
Apparel: Who else is getting it right?
Pellegrin: Odin in New York is another really great men's store. They have a fantastic expression of who they are as a brand, a well-edited selection of merchandise, and their salespeople are great. But other than a few small examples, I really don't see anyone that blows my socks off. Nobody is really pushing the envelope with men, because people don't really believe that men are a realizable market. They don't really think guys can change. And if that's how you step into the market, that's pretty much the return you're going to get.
Apparel: Explain how the shopping habits of young guys have more in common with young gals than with older men.
Pellegrin: For Generation Y, at places like Abercrombie & Fitch or Urban Outfitters, you'll see young guys shopping together in a group. And they're not only shopping together, they're advising each other. They're really aware of how things will make them look, and they're also looking at items carefully. In my generation you never did that. So it's a snapshot of what's to come in terms of how men are changing.
Apparel: Tell us about the importance of point of view, and how some consumers may feel overwhelmed by choice, especially at department stores.
Pellegrin: People have been talking about the death of department stores for years, and to an extent it's true. They've been chasing after the customer for so long, and have kind of backed themselves into a corner by turning themselves into a kind of supermarket, where every brand is in there. Macy's is a perfect example. There is no point of view, and if you don't have a point of view, how can I trust you to be my guide? And customer service is so poor. Macy's was so proud of its systems where you could scan the price yourself, which to me was the worst thing you could do, because you're basically saying: "We have no one here to help you, so go help yourself."
Before, when a man would go to a tailor, he trusted the tailor and he could tell you how to wear your suit. So I think the future lies in the boutique and the smaller, neighborhood store.
Apparel: What about buyers' being out of touch with what real customers want. Is there a myopia on their part, where they're essentially buying for themselves?
Pellegrin: Yes, and I think a lot of them are so heavily immersed in the world of fashion that they've lost touch with the customer. Every time they go on buying trips they're assaulted by all the design houses saying "buy my stuff," and they're being dictated to by fashion editors. So they end up making buys that are completely out of touch.
Apparel: Tell us what makes for great customer service.
Pellegrin: The other day I was doing some personal shopping for a guy getting a suit for a wedding. I took him to Barney's, and what I loved about the salesman, who was Italian, was that he gave very specific advice. He suggested that the particular pair of pants he'd selected should be shortened a little bit more than a typical pair, and he also instructed him to put a little bit of black polish on his new brown shoes to get a patina. This kind of thing doesn't happen that much.
Apparel: You've said playing it safe isn't safe anymore. Does this particular market cycle demand audacity, not conservatism?
Pellegrin: A recession is the time to innovate. What do you have to lose? And there are a lot of things you can do for very little money that retailers often overlook.
Apparel: Such as?
Pellegrin: Many retailers still don't manage their online presence well, especially when you consider that men are the fastest-growing demographic in terms of online shoppers. There are also a lot of things you can offer your customers just in terms of service. And yet a lot of companies have gotten rid of free tailoring, which is really the bare minimum you should be offering.
Apparel: What's the significance of the title "Branding the Man"?
Pellegrin: If you truly believe in men as customers and are savvy to what they need and how they feel, you can get them as customers to believe in you. Think of how many men have been seeing the same barber for 20 years because they trust him. I think a store can have the same characteristic, but to do that you have to spend time to understand them.
Christian Chensvold is an Apparel contributing writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.