It’s a battle for market share in big & tall menswear, and for independent specialty stores, it’s tougher than ever to fight DXL, JCP, Dillard’s, Men’s Wearhouse and Westport B&T. Still, those remaining independents who specialize in large sizes have established a niche, and most are having a surprisingly good year.
“Actually B&T business is performing better than regular men’s business,” says Fred Derring, who heads up the BATA group, an association of 60 stores (105 doors: 68 in the U.S., 37 international) that meet twice a year for information exchange, group buys, special pricing, etc. The biggest challenge, Derring confides, is getting more vendors to make more product, especially in the better market, and then getting the product to fit. “The most successful stores in the group are those that have traded up,” he explains. “But manufacturers need minimums on cuttings, and when you consider all the size variations in both bigs and talls, there are 12 different sizes to deal with; most vendors remain reluctant to invest.”
Derring confides that when a major chain starts working with an upscale brand, his stores can sometimes latch onto that cutting. He also recommends that to differentiate, stores should try some of the European brands that are new to the States: Allsize, Fellows United and Duke are three that he suggests.
But with a shortage of reliable suppliers willing to make B&T sizes, how is it that business is fairly healthy? 1) Those vendors who are core in the business have solved most sizing issues; 2) Many have in-stock programs so that they carry the inventory and stores can just fill-in as needed; and 3) Despite (or perhaps because of) our society’s obsession with diets, exercise, fitness, etc., American men keep getting bigger. According to West Coast buying consultant Marshall Kline, 28 percent of American men are size XL or larger; in certain states (Mississippi, Minnesota, Wisconsin) the percentage approaches 33 percent.
At Weitzenkorn’s in Pottstown, Pa., Greg Weitzenkorn attributes his success in B&T to carrying inventory. “B&T is 27 percent of our business, housed in 1,500 sq. ft. in a separate location next door. Our key vendors are great brands like Cutter & Buck, Enro, Tommy Bahama, Peter Millar, Peerless, Jack Victor, Harmony, Callaway, Under Armour and Russell. Nordstrom (King of Prussia) actually sends occasional customers our way because we’re always in stock on sizes. I think that’s key to the business, even though it means slower turn. (Slower turn is why most department stores don’t bother with B&T…)” Weitzenkorn also maintains that adding back a Father’s Day promotion (a $50 gift card with a $100 purchase) helped business considerably this year. They also do really well on their website, which is in its third incarnation.
“Since slim fit is not relevant for big guys, what’s our handle to get them in every season?” —Scott Winterbottom, The Foursome
Scott Winterbottom at The Foursome in Plymouth, Minn. acknowledges that while his B&T business is healthy (at 25 to 30 percent to total), they don’t offer the extensive size range of a DXL. “We do 2x, 3x and a little 4x, which is a more limited size run, and a similar abbreviated size run for talls. But business has been good, especially with brands. Polo is still #1 for us, followed by Tommy Bahama, Cutter & Buck, Tori Richards, Overton, Viyella and Luchiano Visconti. I’m always trying to push my regular-size resources to do more large sizes but I understand their objections: it’s eight SKUs instead of three or four, and it’s a lot more work to get the fit just right. So bottom line, it’s a numbers game and realistically, we can’t order 600 units of a pattern.”
And that’s essentially the dilemma for all B&T merchants: fashion offerings are always more limited in B&T than in regular sizes. Sums up Winterbottom, “For large-size customers, there’s not much new out there; it’s always the same stuff. And since slim fit is not relevant for big guys, what’s our handle to get them in every season?”
Mike Hensley from Hensley’s Big&Tall Outfitters in Des Moines, Iowa adamantly agrees. “We independent stores are competing against some very powerful big box stores: since we can’t compete on price, the only way to win is to group together, go more upscale and offer exciting and exclusive product.”
This option, Hensley insists, is not an impossible dream. “We need to be more pro-active in buying as a group and partnering with our vendors to offer something different under our own brand label. There are plenty of great manufacturers who will work with us if we can just come up with the numbers. If not, the future’s not looking bright: there’s less big & tall being made for the open market and the big box competition is doing a pretty good job.”
“Staying in stock on sizes is key to the business, even though it means slower turn.” —Greg Weitzenkorn, Weitzenkorn’s
Also doing a good job with national brands, boutique brands and exclusives: the independently owned Westport Big & Tall. Based in Charlotte, N.C., they have two stores (Charlotte and Westport, Conn.) and a successful website/catalog business. Last year the online to catalog ratio was 60/40; this year it’s 70/30, meaning more customers are opting to shop online. The two stores combined contribute 10 percent to total volume.
Says Westport founder Tom Altieri, “Each venue attracts different customers so we have to do all three. We mail out more than three million catalogs, 19 drops a year. Yes, printing and mailings are expensive but without this, we’d lose a significant revenue stream.” Because of their size, Westport has been able to convince boutique brands to do B&T sizes, often including smaller BATA stores in the cuttings. Among the brands that Westport has introduced to big & tall: Thaddeus, True Grit and Peter Millar (now a major supplier). “We’re also testing some European brands in our stores,” says Altieri. “If it sells in the stores, and once we’re confident about the sizing, we then can offer it online.”
TRY SOMETHING NEW
Here, three new-to-the-States fashion collections out of Europe that just might keep those big guys coming back and, better still, attract a younger customer….
In its seventh season in the U.S., this Denmark-based brand is huge in Europe, Russia, Australia and the Mideast and is starting to break into the States. Hot now, according to Jorgen Hem, are jackets in technical fabrics ($60 to $180 cost), T-shirts in soft beautiful fabrics ($9 to $30 cost), short sleeve wovens and some fabulous athleisure looks. The Replika division is their denim-driven collection that offers contemporary fashion.
A fashion-forward collection out of Amsterdam targeted to 35- to 55-year-olds, Fellows United is also in Canada with showrooms in Montreal and Toronto. “We specialize in tops,” says partner Sylvain Hinse. “Suggested retails are $90 for short sleeves, $99 for long sleeves. Our goal is to create wearable fashion with European flair meaning sophisticated styles and colors but not too tight, and not too expensive.”
The 30-year-old Duke Clothing Co. offers thousands of styles in all categories. They allegedly launch up to 500 new styles every season in sizes small to 8XL. Key items are their comfort-fit jeans available in stretch and rigid denim in seven colors (sizes to 70), oil-wash T-shirts and all-over print shorts, tees and shirts. According to Rohan Bassi, this British-based collection is in 1,455 stores worldwide and growing fast.
THERE ARE GIANTS!
And some very fashionable ones at that. Tall guys (and those who dress them) should check out ThereAreGiants.com, a terrific website launched by Edward Miskie. It’s filled with fabulous street shots of stylish guys, plus lifestyle, travel and fitness advice. If you stroll through life with your head in the clouds, you will love it!