Men’s apparel has undergone major shifts as workwear becomes more casual and at the same time more men are interested, or at least curious about being fashionable. So how then do you take a classic menswear brand into the future? Today we’re talking to Lance Itkoff, CEO of the iconic men’s wear brand Tip Top.
Melinda: Men’s apparel has undergone major shifts as workwear becomes more casual and at the same time more men are interested, or at least curious about being fashionable. So how then do you take a classic menswear brand into the future? Today we’re talking to Lance Itkoff, CEO of the iconic men’s wear brand Tip Top. Thank you for joining us. And we’re here in the beautiful prototype store in Bramalea. Is that correct?
Lance: Yup. Absolutely.
Melinda: Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the head of Tip Top?
Lance: Well, I don’t want to talk too much about myself. I’ve been with the company three and a half years. I have a pretty longstanding background in the men’s industry. It had all been in the U.S. prior to Tip Top, I started my career at Brooks Brothers. I worked at Joseph A. Bank, so between Brooks Brothers and Joseph A. Bank–similar types of clothing centric men’s retailers–but I have experience in department stores and off-price and e-commerce. When you talked in the opening about the changing landscape of the the suit business, I think it’s a perfect opening because the genesis and the whole thesis behind the transformation of our store experience was the understanding that you can’t be a suit retailer doing it the old ways, where you just run a rack of suits 100 yards long, you hash it up by size, and you take the customer over there and you say, “Here are your options, have at it,” because that customer is going to be coming in to buy his three or four suits for his work needs. Well, that’s gone.
There are so few customers out there anymore that actually need to wear suits for work, and it’s transformed into an event and discretionary purchase. And in order to really capitalize on event and discretionary suit-wearing, you have to offer the customer solutions, not options. So, the whole journey that we’ve been looking to take with our customers is one of putting together a beautiful assortment of really tightly merchandised-related offerings. So rather than going off into that corner and saying, “Here’s your thousands of suits to choose from, have at it, the pressure’s on you,” we sit there and we carefully select a first-class assortment of suits based on style, based on size, based on fit, and based on price points. So, when the customer comes in the door and we’re profiling that customer to what their needs are, we can immediately take them to the one area of the suit department that is most appropriate for them. If it’s a young guy and he’s a slim guy and he’s getting it for grad, we know that that kid generally is going to want to wear our ultra-slim suits and we can go right there and then what we do is we integrate all the other categories, the slim dress shirts, slimmer ties right in there to be able to drive the total solution for the customer. It’s almost “see the look, buy the look” rather than you go into that corner of the store to fish for your suits, go to that corner of the store to fish for your shirts. That doesn’t work anymore. That was the ‘90s, the ‘80s. In 2019, you have to do the work for the customer and allow a customer experience. They come in and understand that they can get that solution from you, not that you’re just going to show them the options.
Melinda: Right. And yet Tip Top is a brand that a lot of men will remember, like men who are my age will remember going and getting their first suit in the ‘90s. How do you take the history of Tip Top into a new era?
Lance: One of the mistakes that retailers make is that they have a core target in their customer. They say, “You know what? We’re going to go after the 20 to 40-year-old target customer.” And then they lock into that target and they keep thinking about the person that they locked in when they set that strategy. But guess what? That customer, in year two is now 21 to 41 and then 22 to 42. And if you don’t keep changing what you’re doing, you wake up one day saying, “You know what? We stuck to our strategy but now we’re old because we’re a 40 to 60, or 50 to 70.”
So, Tip Top is never more relevant than it is today because what we’re doing is, we’re delivering the same service to the marketplace that we did 100 years ago. We are the best solution for that total tailored outfit. If it’s starting with the suit and it’s building it around the dress shirt and the tie, 100 years ago, it may have been mostly that person thinking about that as a work uniform, a work outfit, but they’re thinking about it today as that special occasion, that wedding, the grad, the prom, special parties. So, we’re doing basically the same thing, but we’ve kept our focus on that 20 to 40-year-old sweet spot of most of the guys that are wearing suits these days and haven’t allowed it to age up. We’ve changed with that customer. As that guy ages out, we’re paying attention to our sweet spot, not where that sweet spot is aging. So, you know, I think in 2019, Tip Top has never been more relevant.
Melinda: I was thinking a little bit about the history of the brand and the history of even in the name, Tip Top Tailors, and the aspect of tailoring and in the new store, which people can’t see but we’ll show pictures on the podcast description, we’ll have some pictures there so they can see what it looks like, you’ve really kind of brought that element out and we’re using it as a design feature. It’s actually really featured strongly. Why was that so important?
Lance: Well, so it’s kind of an interesting nuance. Our logo on the front of the stores had always been Tip Top Tailors and everybody, customers, employees, everybody calls it Tip Top. So, we started thinking we’re Tip Top, but what we truly are is tailors since 1909. So, by making that slight adjustment and you’ll see that in the new branding, in the storefront logos, it’s now Tip Top, Tailors Since 1909. And we’re actually emphasizing the fact that we’re a place where you can go to get an unbelievable suit that fits your body, it fits your budget, it fits your style, and it will be professionally finished on-site by our expert tailors so you could look good today.
Melinda: You can get same-day tailoring?
Lance: Yeah. I mean, it’s nothing that we actually go out there and offer out as a service level promise, but very often. Very often. But because all of the pants to the suit separates are finished bottoms and all of the suit sleeves are finished, there are a ton of customers come in here because we engineer the suits to fit, a ton of customers come in here and they’re actually able to walk out without any adjustments. But if they need those specific adjustments to their individual body type, we do the professional finishing with the onsite tailors.
You get a company like Indochino. Indochino is a great company. If that customer wants some sort of a styling detail that they can never get, maybe some cool design on a fabric that they can never get, they’re going to go there, they’re going to have that experience, wait a number of weeks, have a couple of fittings. Our whole value proposition is you can look great today, through all of the different solutions that we talked about before. We have it there for you and that finishing touch, just to make it perfectly suited to you, we celebrate the tailoring expert of what we do, which is why in the new prototype that we’re in, we brought the tailor out of the back and into the front and one of the interesting things is we thought that that would be just a great example to the customers that we’re really doing this and we really invest in finishing that garment exactly. What we’re actually finding is the customers are coming back to the tailor shop and they’re asking tons of questions and they really love to be able to interact with that person that they know is finishing that garment, specifically for them. So, it’s been a lot of fun.
Melinda: I think about my dad when he used to go to work, and he pretty much wore the same thing every day. And fashion wasn’t really a big thing for him, but more and more fashion for men has become important and men want to look not just good, but they want to look stylish. But I think a lot of men are maybe anxious, nervous, not quite sure. How does Tip Top approach that aspect of men’s fashion?
Lance: You know, it’s funny that you said your dad because I have three sons who are 19, 20, and 24 and when I think of suits now, I think of my sons because they actually have more occasion to wear suits than I do, right? And they want the new suits that we come out with because they love them. It’s actually this discretionary style-driven wardrobe choice for them because they know that they can be in jeans or khakis 24/7 with a casual sport shirt. They really look forward to dressing up and looking great. So, I think that whole paradigm has turned upside down with the concept of who that perceived customer is. You know, it’s that older, “my dad, he’s going to work, he’s taking the newspaper under his arm.” That’s just such a tiny piece of our business.
Melinda: Do you find young men are really confident about what they’re choosing when they come into the store? They know what they want already or?
Lance: No, no, no, no, no. Whether it’s a young guy, whether it’s a first timer, whether it’s that wardrobe refresher customer that’s coming in, just by nature, guys, we don’t like to shop. We like to see it, buy it. So, the whole sales choreography in this store is built to try to take away the pain points that the customer feels when they’re usually going somewhere, right? We invest in a high level of service. I would like to think that we have the best and most informed, from a product knowledge standpoint, staff anywhere that you can go and find. It starts with really just a conversation. We say when the customer comes in our store, they come into our house. It has shifted from a sales experience to a customer service experience. If they want to buy a suit, they’re going to buy a suit. They’re not going to buy a suit because a salesman is selling them a suit. So, we just totally don’t even look at it that way. We look at it as a conversation with the customer, trying to dig deep to understand what their needs are. It’s really about the open probes that we ask the customer when they come in, “What brings you in today?” Right? You might say, “I have a wedding.” And then there’s a whole series of questions that are best practices to ask. You know, “What kind of wedding? Is it a formal wedding? Is it more casual? Is it night? Is it a daytime wedding? Is it a destination wedding? Do you have a particular color in mind?” If the person, you know, has a wife, “What color is your wife’s dress?” It’s all about discovery on what works well and then we’ll say, “Okay, now, before we do anything, look into your closet in your mind, do you have suits in your closet right now or is this going to be the only one?” Because if they do have suits in the closet, very often, something in the closet can work for them or it might lead us to make a choice that’s different because left to our own devices, we’ll go out and we’ll buy the same blue suit every time and we’ll have a closet full of blue suits. And my wife looks at me–it’s more blue shirts from me–She says, “Why did you buy that?” “Because I don’t have it.” She says, “You have five that look exactly like that.” That’s what guys do.
Melinda: Yeah. My husband has the same pants and he has three shirts and he has the same three shirts. I’m like, “That’s the same shirt.”
Lance: But we’ll argue with you, they’re not the same. They’re not the same. “This check is a little bit bigger.” No, no, but we’re creatures of habit. So, it’s really about probing the customer to understand what their needs are and then walking them through a solutions-driven experience rather than putting the pressure on them to tell us what they want or tell us what they need. It’s our job to uncover their needs in that conversation with them and then show them solutions. You know, the number one worst pain point for a guy when he’s buying a suit is the actual fitting of the suit, the fitting room, the measuring, all that kind of stuff. We don’t like to do it. Why can’t we just take it the way it is? Right? And we recognize that as the biggest opportunity for us to change that whole experience.
So, we took the back of the store and we really built this big open, happy, well-lit space back here where we have the four lounge chairs and the coffee tables and the water, magazines, making it a place where families can congregate, partners can congregate when they’re shopping. And then we took the fitting rooms and we doubled the size of the fitting rooms. We made very comfortable benches rather than nasty little chairs. We put hooks and bars and shelves on the wall, so a guy doesn’t have to worry about where he’s putting his stuff or having stuff falling out. Because when you go into these tiny, poorly fitting rooms, the first thing you’re thinking about is getting out of there, and that’s not what we want our customers to be experiencing. We want to make it actually a fun thing, celebrating the fact that you’re going to look great when you’re done with this process. So, it’s something that should be fun. And then the best part about it is it’s all this one kind of lounge area where the families of the partners are at, the fitting rooms are there, the tailor shop is right there on the floor and it’s all this one kind of big open, happy experience. Customers coming out can get the input from the wife, the input from the partner, the input from the tailor, the sales associate is there to be able to work with them and it’s been unbelievable to watch the difference in the customer experience in the new prototype versus where we were before, because they’re actually spending more time in the store, they’re far more relaxed, they’re having a lot more fun, and now they see it as something that, “Wow, you know what? Maybe looking great and feeling good can go together and it doesn’t have to be something that is drudgery and painful.”
Melinda: You mentioned something a little while back that I wanted to go back to, which was talking about how great your staff are. And I will say we shot a video here in the store about the customer journey with some of your staff, and they blew us all away. How do you find people who can deliver on that experience and then how do you set them up for success?
Lance: You know what? That’s a great question because there’s actually been a real seismic shift in the way you look for the right person. It used to be in the men’s specialty store business, you would ask, does the person interviewing for a job today have on their resume men’s specialty experience? We kind of took that, ripped it up, and said, “That’s an outdated way of thinking,” because if the whole customer experience had to change, if the customer demands are changing, if we’ve shifted from a sales approach to a customer service approach, we’re not going to be finding gold in the scraps of other men’s specialty retailers, we need to look into the service industries. We’re finding unbelievable people from the restaurant industry. We’re finding unbelievable people from the cruise industry.
Lance: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. Because if somebody knows how to work with a person on a customer service basis, and we layer onto that the product knowledge of what’s here in the store and they can get excited about what we’re doing, it’s a powerful combination because we’re not leading with the sales approach, we’re leading with the customer service approach.
Melinda: I think some retailers are still really struggling with that, but it really does stand out when you have that experience, and it’s such a big differentiator when you walk into a store and you can feel that, I think.
If you were going to give advice to someone who was in your situation when you came into Tip Top and you wanted to make this change and you wanted to transform the brand and take it forward into the future, if you were talking to you a few years back, what pieces of advice would you give yourself?
Lance: “Go for it” because if you stay in place, it’s not going to work. Don’t filter down your goal before you try it once. You can always figure out how to fine-tune what you do after you do it. But the biggest struggle when we were trying to re-imagine the store experience was sticking to our guns and just saying, “We’re going to do what we set out to do and we’re not going to talk ourselves out of it.”
Melinda: What is it that gets in the way that makes you have that hesitation?
Lance: Fear of change. Fear of change, because you know what you know. And even though there are retailers out there whose performance is poor, they’re afraid to walk away from things because it’s what they know, right? You can talk yourself into, “Yeah, well it’s because of the weather.” You know, we like to say, “Whether…it’s a whether problem, whether or not they like it, whether or not it fits.” So we don’t talk about those things. We’re about changing and involving, and what we say to each other in all of our meetings, change it, not him, right? Our guys don’t want to be changed and they don’t want to listen to us. We need to listen to him, but then we need to change it because if we don’t change it, he has it. And if he has it, he doesn’t need to come see us again. And that’s the hardest thing to do, is walk away from the table when you’re up, you got to keep changing.
Melinda: It’s fundamental, and yet it is so…it can be really difficult for people.
Lance: It’s the same reason people buy stocks. When the market is up, they feel good about it because everything’s up and then the market goes down and they sell because they’re afraid. When the market goes down, stocks are on sale. That’s when you buy them. But it doesn’t feel as comfortable. People stay in that comfortable place. They rationalize why staying where they’re at is the better option than going to the risk, the unknown.
Melinda: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, and we look forward to seeing the next stores. On the podcast description, we will share some images of the store so people can have a look and see just how beautiful it is.
Lance: Oh, cool. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Melinda: Creating a new retail store experience is about so much more than just a nice-looking store. That’s obviously a big part of it, but if you don’t have the new customer journey mapped out and you don’t have the staff to deliver on that new experience, you won’t be maximizing the return on your investment.
Some key takeaways from Lance’s thoughts today. First, look for retail staff who understand service. He mentioned food service and cruise ships as places where he’s finding amazing people. Secondly, make it easier for the customer through smart merchandising instead of making them go fishing for outfits. I’m not sure if that’s just Lance’s term or an industry standard, but I like it. Don’t make them go fishing, serve them up a nice, easy outfit. Third, don’t wait for things to turn down. Get ahead of the game. This is sometimes a tough sell to stakeholders, but wise leaders know how true this is. Think of some of the mega brands who’ve really demonstrated how being ahead of the curve can reap you rewards like Apple, Supreme, Starbucks, Gucci. And lastly, the advice that he would have given himself, to go for it. Easier said than done when so much is on the line, but what I like about this rather broad, vague, and even cliché advice is that it’s true. Being fearless is a big part of succeeding in a competitive market, and Lance is definitely someone who embodies that advice.
Thanks for listening.
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