Trying to suit customers Apparel: Men's Wearhouse tries to make shopping for clothes a little more bearable for men who see it as a chore. The chain is growing fast in a sluggish industry.

June 24, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

You detest shopping. You can't shake those memories, when your mother stuffed you in a jacket and tie for junior high school graduation. Yet that dreaded day has come: You must buy a suit.

For the apparel-paralyzed consumer, at least one potential solution is arriving in the Baltimore-Washington market: "trained wardrobe consultants," courtesy of the Men's Wearhouse. The retailer -- among the nation's largest discounters of men's tailored clothing -- has brought its West Coast act to the mid-Atlantic region, opening six shops, including a Pikesville store, and it plans to operate 10 by year-end with sites in Towson, White Marsh and Columbia.

"We know that most men don't like to shop," said Men's Wearhouse Executive Vice President Richard Goldman. "And we try to take the pain out of it, even to make it fun."

Unless you're a competitor of the Fremont, Calif.-based retailer. Then, there is nothing fun about the Men's Wearhouse, a fast-growing chain of about 290 stores in 30 states.

"They're the top men's specialty chain around," said analyst Howard Eilenberg of Johnson Redbook Service in New York. "Their numbers are consistently good."

The company has boasted strong sales -- up 20 percent in May, up 25.5 percent for the quarter -- during what has otherwise been a brutal time for apparel retailers. Among the casualties: New Jersey-based Today's Man Inc., a key competitor, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February; and Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., the youth fashion retailer out of Joppa, which collapsed the same month.

The arrival of the Men's Wearhouse could make things worse for other men's retailers, such as Hampstead-based Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. But Bank, which recently reported its first profit since the fourth quarter of 1994, insists that it isn't concerned about the competition.

"We've done a tremendous amount of business since [Men's Wearhouse] opened up," said Bank Chairman Timothy F. Finley. "So be it."

Both retailers tout low prices, high quality and a full line of menswear: shoes, socks, ties, shirts, suits, jackets, tuxedos, cuff links.

Bank, however, is banking on what distinguishes the chain of 81 stores: traditional clothing under its own private label. By contrast, the Men's Wearhouse devotes about 80 percent of its stock to brand names, including Pierre Cardin, Chaps and Geoffrey Beene.

But more importantly, said regional manager Marc Golston, "Our stores are set up very user-friendly."

From the outside, the Men's Wearhouse looks like any other clothing shop in a strip mall: Mannequins in jacket and tie stare through the front windows. Potted plants sit inside. Racks of suits and sports jackets line the walls, while dress shirts are cubby-holed in the middle.

What isn't readily seen is that the stores are equipped with 24-hour tailoring, that slacks can be hemmed in 10-15 minutes and that the company offers free lifetime pressing for that wrinkled suit and sports coat.

The company, however, is even more proud of another selling point -- its sales men and women, who are transformed into "trained wardrobe consultants" after attending "suits university," a four-day, expense-paid trip to Fremont.

In a simulated store, employees are trained by playing out the customer-consultant relationship, otherwise known as the "interviewing process." Measure for size, the course teaches, then ask questions: For what occasion will the suit be used? What line of work is the customer in?

Employees also learn the art of matching colors and patterns, that a navy blazer goes with taupe slacks, brown shoes and a print tie. Or, as in Golston's case on a recent day, a $269 three-button solid navy suit matches a $22 blue and tan print tie, $79 mahogany wingtip shoes and a $30 tab-collar French blue shirt.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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