A recent midweek afternoon shopping trip took me to the King of Prussia Mall. Truth be told, I am not an enthusiastic mall shopper and King of Prussia, as the nation’s third-largest mall, is a monster to navigate.
Whenever I go, I almost always park near Nordstrom because of all the stores in the mall, Nordstrom is my favorite. But in my most recent visit, Nordstrom disappointed me, big time.
Entering the Nordstrom’s store by what used to be the big main floor shoe department, I found a big chunk of the old shoe department had been given over to the curbside pickup department.
It was like I walked into the shipping and receiving department, not the store. Packages and clothing bags were out in the open for all to see. The shop girls were sitting around working their cell phones. There was no greeting, no engagement, just all eyes peeled to the important stuff happening on their phones.
I would have taken a picture but Nordstrom requires permission to take photos inside the store. But trust me, it looked like the backroom, not the sales floor.
However, Nordstrom did provide a statement: “When we launched our online order pickup offering in 2008, our goal was to offer customers the convenience of shopping online with the ease of picking it up at a local Nordstrom store. The design of the online order pickup section in our store is meant to be easily identifiable and accessible for customers to pick up their orders.”
That objective has been achieved, but to my mind it was too visible. I’d rather have seen walls around the department and prominent signage rather than all those boxes and bags.
Also surprising for a company like Nordstrom, revered for exceptional customer service and attention to detail, was that the sales clerks holding down the fort in the department weren’t actively greeting customers. The Nordstrom spokesperson added that the department employees are provided with mobile devices to better serve their curbside customers.
It left me with a terrible first impression. So I already had a bad taste in my mouth and didn’t expect the rest of my shopping experience to improve. But it did.
I headed out into the mall in search of my destination noticing the new stores that had popped up since my last visit. Rounding a corner, I happened upon a new Suitsupply store, a menswear fashion retailer I have written about in the past.
Immediately, I noticed that Suitsupply was much busier than the other stores I’d passed. Not only that, but in the window was the tailoring department with a man hard at work at a sewing machine.
That spoke volumes to me about what Suitsupply is and it explained why that store was busy when every other one was not. It wasn’t just a store displaying product, but a place where things were being made and stuff was really happening.
Admittedly, I am more discerning than the casual shopper, but anyone would have picked up the same signals had they followed my course. Nordstrom looked messy, unorganized, and uncared for. Suitsupply looked like it knows the business it’s in: getting the customers’ fit and fashion right. What a study in contrasts.
So I called up Suitsupply’s CEO and founder Fokke de Jong to talk more about how Suitsupply is leveraging its stores’ great first impression to keep shoppers coming back for more.
Suitsupply stores tell the brand’s story: customization
Suitsupply was founded in Amsterdam literally out of the trunk of de Jong’s car, then in 2000 he opened its first store in Amsterdam and moved onto the internet. “We were an omnichannel retailer before they invented the term ‘omnichannel,’” de Jong says.
Initially, word of mouth and earned media built a cult-like following for the brand, with the always impeccably-dressed fashion icon Tim Gunn naming SuitSupply one of the 12 things he can’t live without and the Wall Street Journal’s Sarah Nassauer singing the brand’s praises in a 2011 article reporting on the opening of its first U.S. store in NYC Soho.
The company never has resorted to paid advertising to attract customers. “We don’t spend any money on marketing or advertising,” de Jong shares. “We spend money on our people, training them to become experts in fit and styling. Our sales teams are our marketing teams.”
Suitsupply has now grown to 130 stores worldwide, including 44 locations in the U.S. While about 30% of company sales are made online, the physical store and the personal interaction that it enables is critical to the brand’s growth and future success.
Its stores are more than just places to buy clothes; they are the company’s billboards. And the absolute best billboard advertisement for the brand is that tailor shop in every store’s front window.
“It has been a signature for all of our stores around the world,” he continues. “Customers like it because they can see their clothing being worked on and actually talk to their tailor. The tailors like it because it helps them know what is going on on the sales floor. It makes the whole store more fluid.” And I would add, experiential.
Seeing people at work on sewing machines leaves passersby with no doubt about what Suitsupply is and what it stands for: customized and custom-made menswear.
The difference? “We can customize something on the sales floor with an in-store tailor in an hour or up to two days depending on what needs to be done,” de Jong explains. “Or for only $100 more, we can actually make the product from scratch. You can basically customize everything you see in the store.”
This offers two advantages. It delivers a superior fit that isn’t available from many other retailers. And it allows the company to invest more in its people since there is less waste on inventory. De Jong says, “We produce only what we need and what our customers demand.”
For many of its customers who have not experienced true custom tailoring, putting the tailor shop in the window makes the brand and its promise come to life.
Disputing commonly-held retail beliefs
Suitsupply is disproving two commonly-held beliefs in fashion retail. “Everybody is saying ‘stores are dead.’ We prove them wrong,” de Jong says. “We love stores. We’ve been opening them all across the world and they are doing really well for us. Let’s face it, this is a product that is really hard to buy from an Amazon listening device,” referring to Alexa.
Besides the company’s commitment to brick-and-mortar retail, Suitsupply also challenges the belief that casualization has killed the suit.
“I also hear all the time that the suit is dead. That is simply not the case. What’s dead in suiting is conformity,” he says. “We allow men to do away with the suit ‘uniform’ in favor of a look that is totally his own. Our mantra is, ‘Don’t just fit it; find your perfect fit.’”
Casualization created a new opportunity
The trend toward casual dressing created an unexpected opportunity for this company known for its crisply-tailored style.
“People are coming in for advice. Suddenly instead of an outfit having one or two parts, it has four or more parts,” he says. “With layering and more moving parts, it has become challenging for men to put together a fashionable look. They come to us to have a relationship with somebody that can get the fit right and they can trust for advice on style.”
In closing, I asked him about the definition of “suiting,” which he uses frequently in conversation.
“Suiting is a look anchored by a jacket,” he says, but thanks to new fabrication and custom tailoring, a jacket can be made much more comfortable that jackets of yesteryear. “Our super-light fabric feels so comfortable it’s like you are wearing a t-shirt. But it looks very elegant.”
Elegant is another word that de Jong frequently uses, as well. “Men today want to be more stylish. They want quality that lasts. They want it sustainable. And they want to look elegant. If a man replaces a hoodie with a jacket made from the best fabric and tailored to his body, or even if he puts a cashmere jacket over a hoodie, that infuses elegance into his look.”
At its core, Suitsupply is all about making a good first impression, both as a retailer to impress its customers with its custom fit-and-style promise, as well as helping its customers impress when they are out on the street, in the office or on a date.