It doesn’t feel so long ago that brick-and-mortar retailers were rushing to develop online stores. Now that evolution often happens in reverse: Retailers start online and migrate to the real world, where customers can touch, taste, and try on their goodies. That group includes eyewear maker Warby Parker, which opened a Manhattan storefront this spring, and fashion accessories startup BaubleBar, which has experimented with a variety of brick-and-mortar models to appeal to women for whom shopping is a social activity. There’s also Gap’s (GPS) “online-only” brand, which (irony alert) opened a brick-and-mortar boutique last fall.
Custom shirt maker Proper Cloth is the latest to join the click-to-brick crowd with a SoHo showroom that opened in June. Founder Seph Skerritt says the startup needed a physical presence to establish its brand. “Our goal is to be a timeless menswear brand,” he says. “That’s a tough sell if you’re only online.”
The New York-based company has been selling custom men’s shirts online for five years, and it turns a profit on more than $1 million in annual revenue, Skerritt says. The company isn’t venture capital-backed, so it doesn’t need to chase fast growth like some of the other e-commerce startups that have opened physical locations. Still, as Skerritt sought to expand sales, he worried that too much advertising would cheapen the brand.
Meanwhile, he says, “it’s been hard to tell our story” without a physical location. “There’s a question of, ‘How do we differentiate ourselves?’ We want people to know we’re not some random e-commerce company in Shanghai.”
While Proper Cloth’s street address in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, where retail rents can run $1,000 per square foot, reads like a straight marketing play, the company is barely visible to the street-level throngs. The showroom, where customers can get help with fittings and use a Proper Cloth laptop to place an online order, is in a fourth-floor walkup that doubles as office and fitting room.
While I interviewed Skerritt at one end of the room, a company employee walked a customer through styles and fabrics. When I left, some 30 minutes later, they were still talking about “aggressive lines” and neck sizes. Spending that kind of time with a customer makes sense, says Skerritt, because many of the company’s customers are professionals who might buy a dozen shirts at more than $100 a pop. It takes a lot of trust to get customers to spend like that online, which is why we can expect to see more Web retailers follow Proper Cloth’s path to the tangible world.