For the past couple of decades the two premier men's clothing specialty retailers in the United States have arguably been Louis Boston and San Francisco's Wilkes Bashford. Both of them are going through transitions. Debi Greenberg took over Louis Boston in 2003 from her father Murray Pearlstein, and is placing her own stamp on that institution. And this year, Connecticut's Mitchell family, perhaps the most successful men's retailers in the country, are doing the same to Wilkes Bashford.
This is important stuff as the specialty men's clothier has nearly disappeared in the United States, and if it vanishes most men would have little choice but to shop at their local Saks or Nordstroms. Department stores have their place, but it takes a large company to do business with a large chain. Without the specialty retailer the American man would have even fewer clothing choices than he has today.
Of the two transitions the one at Wilkes is perhaps the more interesting. The Mitchell family (that is CEO Jack Mitchell with his trademark tailor's tape in the photo) operates Mitchells/Richards, highly successful suburban stores built on a foundation of customer satisfaction. Yes, everyone talks about customer satisfaction, but Mitchells/Richards walks the walk. The clothes are there of course, but where the Mitchells excel is at service. The objective of the firm is to build trusting relationships with customers and friends, and in their home markets they have done just that. It has paid off. The Mitchells dominate their local areas as few retailers do in any business.
Now it would go too far to say that service was not good at the old Wilkes, but the place was never considered a warm, welcoming environment. The staff is uniformly bright, articulate, and very intimidating to people they do not know. And while on the one hand people from all over the West fly into San Francisco to shop at Wilkes, on the other I know dozens of men who refuse to patronize the place because of their perceptions of the staff's "attitude."
The Mitchells had the opportunity to acquire Wilkes due in large part to the financial stresses of the bad economy and they are taking the business challenge seriously. Two senior family member executives have relocated to the Bay area and Jack Mitchell himself is spending three weeks out of each month in town (he is very visible on the floor). The objective is to bring that customer friendly Connecticut environment to the Bay area.
Wilkes is going to be a different place, and hopefully changed for the better.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Posted by Will at 9:00 AM