How do you know when you’re headed in the right direction?
There are a lot of signs - think metrics: your ROI’s and LTV’s.
But on a gut level, what drives your decision-making?
Since launching in 2016, SuitShop co-founders Jeanne Foley and Diana Ganz have been disrupting the (frankly terrible) suit rental industry for about five years now.
Offering stylish suits for purchase at a lower cost than most rentals, they’ve grown from an initial goal of ten sales a day into a leading brand in the men’s formalwear space.
These days, Jeanne and Diana have three retail locations and a booming online presence. It’s a huge shift from their initial plan, and they’ve pulled it off because they understand, at heart, that the customer drives every decision for their brand.
So let’s talk about flexibility.
Sometimes retail happens to you (and that’s okay)
Retail was never really part of the plan for Jeanne and Diana. As a digitally native brand focusing initially on men’s wedding apparel, they found that shopping online was actually a perfect experience for many of their customers.
But as they expanded, their customer base changed and developed in new directions. As demand shifted, SuitShop pivoted with it.
“Well, we didn't truly decide to do retail. We rented a really cool, like lofty type space in Chicago when we relocated the business. And it was mostly for warehousing.
We grew out of our little, tiny apartment in New York, relocated to this. What we thought was a huge space, 2,000 square feet, racks and racks of suits. That's where we did all of our shipping customer service, yoga pants, like Diana said.
And people looked up where our address was on Google and it would list this location. People started showing up.”
“So, we'd get knocks on this door. It was a total mess. People would walk in and we're like, you're not supposed to be here. This is not a retail store. But they loved it. And every time a customer came in and we got them fitted, they felt like they were having this great experience that they had found this like, special place where they got really affordable suits.”
“And as traffic started to increase, we were like, you know what? We should renovate this space and make it nice, and make it a great place where people can come and get fitted.”
What’s important here is the ways that Jeanne and Diana were able to expand their initial vision. Even though retail was never really a goal for SuitShop, it ended up being the perfect channel for their mission: providing a better alternative to standard wedding rentals.
Brick’n’mortar supports the online experience
Retail locations have an amazing power to legitimize brands in the eyes of customers. That’s especially important for brands that sell high ticket items or that take part in important life events. Like, say, weddings.
SuitShop knows that their customers are constantly making huge decisions planning their big day, and that it gets really stressful, really fast.
With that in mind, they’ve used their retail presence as a key tool for proving themselves as a reliable, trustworthy brand - even when the going gets tough.
“I think there's something about having retail stores listed on your site, even that gives people confidence. That you're not just going to -- you're not just this quick fad brand that threw up a website and it's turning out orders through a fulfillment center. Like there's real people, we've invested in a location, there's product.”
“So especially when you're dealing with special events and weddings where you're planning so far in advance, the fear for a lot of people is: will this business still be in business? You know, when it comes time, what is their inventory situation like? How do I contact them? Like a lot of brands don't have phone numbers on their site anymore. So...as soon as we opened up a physical location, sales online and otherwise grew exponentially.”
The showroom model v.s. traditional retail
When it comes to wedding planning, getting fitted is usually part of a much bigger process. For bridal shops, there’s a long history of treating this as a whole event, complete with champagne.
That experience has long been lacking when it comes to suits, though.
SuitShop’s showroom model may have started as a happy accident, but Jeanne and Diana have successfully turned that surprise into one of the strongest parts of their business.
Treating their brick’n’mortar spaces as showrooms rather than traditional stores means that they can focus on the customer experience and meet a specific set of needs and pain points, rather than trying to be everything to everyone.
“I think operationally, you know, the simplicity of a showroom is so wonderful just from a standpoint of -- how much inventory do we have to have in there. You know, making sure you have the right assortments, it's not constantly churning.
So we have this beautiful ability to have all of this product in our showroom for guys to try on and feel and touch and test different fits, but then we set up their order and ship it directly to them.”
“You know, part of it is also that experience of going in and getting fitted and not feeling like -- you (have to) walk out with a big garment bag and bags of stuff that you then carry with you.”
Pivoting to personalized digital experiences during COVID
As a digitally native brand, SuitShop was already working with low overheads and a broad customer base. When COVID hit, they were in good shape to survive, even if it meant business-as-usual would have to change.
What they’ve found, though, is that their temporary stopgap measures have ended up becoming fundamental building blocks for a new kind of omnichannel shopping.
“We were, you know, thinking how do we service them the best way without the stores being there. Build that trust. And so we launched virtual appointments where you basically book online, a day and time that works for you. And it's a great little video chat with one of our stylists. And people loved it.”
“I didn't think that they were going to take to it as quickly as they did. And I think it sort of surprised us, but we had these showroom managers and employees sit in the empty showroom and video chat with our customers all over the country. And so it really made us realize that you don't have to have that physical location.
We love it's part of just who we are as a brand, having these three locations. Who knows if, you know, we'll explore more in the future, but just having these virtual appointments gives people so much trust that they are talking to a real person.”
Virtual appointments have been a big win for SuitShop. But that opens up an interesting new question: where do personalized ecommerce experiences fall within their organizational structure?
No easy answers here, but SuitShop is already thinking ahead to maintain the brand narrative at every customer touchpoint.
Maintaining great customer service at high volume
Between their three retail locations and their booming online business, SuitShop has a problem. A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless: how do they keep their service boutique and hyper-personalized when dealing with such a broad range of customers?
Well, it comes down to offering a range of options so customers can interact with the brand in the way that best fits into their lifestyles.
“You almost always either have a chat bot or all these automated processes for how you go through things. And even when you do reach out to a true customer service representative, you almost always get an auto reply with links to how to self serve, right?
So while that's really wonderful from an operational perspective and just the volume thing, which we're dealing with now, as we grow. We're having like an absolutely insane start to the year because people are planning again and we're finding ourselves just completely inundated with emails and phone [calls] and appointments.
And so we're re-evaluating how we best serve these customers with this high touch experience that we know is so valuable, but also like tie in some of the automated self-help stuff to make sure people can get answers as well.”
“There are people who love the hands-off approach. ‘I don't want to talk to somebody. I want to click a few buttons and get my return label or exchange.’ And then there are people that just wouldn't buy from you unless they could talk to a person.”
Key takeaway: automation only works if it’s what your customers want.
Avoid discounting (if you can)
What’s the perceived value of your brand?
Fundamentally, this is defined by the customer. Sure, you have overheads and profit margins and a break-even point. But that’s not what the customer sees.
They’re going through a process of mental algebra when they shop, deciding if the value of this product at that price is worthwhile for the role it will play in their lives. This makes heavy discounting risky, because it can change the customer’s sense of what they’re paying for.
Regular discounting also pushes customers to shop only when there’s a sale or when they have a coupon. Rather than following their own natural shopping patterns, it creates an inorganic relationship with the brand.
So SuitShop avoids discounting, but what’s amazing about their approach is how they turn it into a better customer experience all around.
“In the beginning customers were asking, do you have any discount codes? What's the discount code? Where if I buy this many, can I have this? Can you do a freebie? This and that. And at first it felt really uncomfortable to say no, because we don't say no to our customers.”
“But we basically, as a brand philosophy, we were like, we don't want an inflated price on our products all the time only to say, okay guys, it's 50% off now. Flash sale, go get it. It's like, from a customer's perspective, if you really think about it: why? Well, if the company can put it on 50% off, then why is the price so high to begin with?”
Let your customers call the shots
This is the heart of what makes SuitShop such a standout in their industry: amazing flexibility based on the desires and needs of their customers.
“I think it’s a changing dynamic for sure in the startup space, because a lot of times until probably the past couple of years, growth has really been determined by what shareholders demand and what investors demand. And especially if you take institutional money, what VCs are pressing you to do.
And in that situation, a couple of years ago, we probably would have been pressed to like ‘open up as many locations as you can…Get first to market in every major city.’”
“We fortunately haven't had to go that route with institutional investors and our group of investors have really continued to let us put the customer first instead of themselves. And that has been just the game changer for us.”
Again, it’s about letting customer demand drive growth. Your audience will shop the way that works for them, whether that’s with you, or with another brand.
Following your customers can be really scary, though. They can have contradictory desires and fully understanding their needs isn’t always easy.
So let’s return to our question from the very beginning of this article: How do you know when you’re headed in the right direction?
Here’s Diana’s approach:
“When you find an idea that the universe is literally pulling you into it faster than you can keep up, like that's a good product market fit. That is a good business idea.”
“Our customers have just been pulling us to kind of where we go now. Actually, we finally have our legs underneath us after five years, although Jeanne and I still answer the phone, which is a fun fact. And I think we always will because it's a great way to stay in touch with our customers and chat with them.”
For SuitShop, resilience is fundamentally about flexibility. It’s about remaining fluid, and learning what the brand can and should be as it grows. Jeanne and Diana have mastered the art of rolling with the punches and leaning in when they discover something new and exciting.
In Diana’s words, again:
There's more than one way to get to the top of the mountain.