Talbots Goes for Testosterone

Just as menswear is fraying, the chain is trying it on

Retreat has been the order of the day for many players in the miserable menswear market. No wonder. "These days, the No. 1 reason a guy buys new clothes is that he has gained weight or his clothes are frayed," says Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group Inc. The firm, which tracks consumer buying trends, says men's clothing has been in decline for a couple of years, and it estimates that U.S. sales slipped 0.8% more, to $51.9 billion, in the 12 months ended in May.

So why does Arnold B. Zetcher, chairman and CEO of Talbots (TLB ) Inc., think this is the perfect time to plunge into menswear? Think of it as buying at the bottom of the market. "As we hear other people are having difficulty, that says to us we should be in the men's business," says Zetcher. And never mind that Talbots -- one of the nation's best-known women's specialty retailers, with more than 900 stores -- has no experience selling clothes to men. Zetcher believes his fanatically loyal female customers shop for the men in their lives -- or at least can be counted on to drag husbands and boyfriends into stores that Zetcher says will be heavy on ambience and service.

In early September, Talbots Mens is opening shops on New York's Madison Avenue, plus Boston and the Washington area, joining three stores it opened in less visible locations last spring. That's just the first assault in a campaign that will lead to a nationwide men's chain with "hundreds" of outlets, says Zetcher -- rivaling Brooks Brothers' more than 100 stores. "We want to offer what the upscale men's operators are offering at a more moderate price level," he says. Talbots Mens will shun suits, concentrating on sportswear ranging from chinos to dress trousers, sweaters and sports coats.

Many local menswear shops have bitten the dust in recent years, and sales at men's specialty stores haven't budged in a decade. But some of the biggest chains haven't given up. Brooks Brothers, under new owner Claudio Del Vecchio, is aggressively promoting its claim of improved quality. Men's Wearhouse credited strong suit-buying activity for an 8% gain in U.S. same-store sales during the 13 weeks ended Aug. 2. And a surprising number of retail gurus feel Zetcher may be on to something by offering a fresh assortment with more service. "Most men are terrible clothes buyers who need a lot of hand-holding," says Emanuel Weintraub, who runs a retail consulting firm in Fort Lee, N.J. "Yet the department stores have abandoned that level of service."

Clearly, there is opportunity to expand with the right men's offerings. The Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. chain had just 100 stores in 1999 and is now up to 180. It plans to have 500 open by 2007. Bank sells moderately priced suits and sportswear with attentive service. Since CEO Robert N. Wildrick took charge of the century-old Bank in '99, net income has soared sevenfold, to $10.9 million, as sales jumped 25%, to $243 million.

But is Talbots positioned to make a similar leap? Its pricey women's offerings have suffered in the economic downturn -- in the quarter ended Aug. 2, same-store sales fell 1.7%. Overall sales have been stagnant for two years, at around $1.6 billion, and net income for the 12 months ended Feb. 1 slid 5%, to $120.8 million. And it may be a challenge to lure some men into stores they associate with women's wear. "A man is going to feel like he's shopping at his wife's store or his mother's store," argues Robert Lepre, a principal at New England Consulting Group. To counteract that image, Talbots is going to great lengths to differentiate its men's stores, with a more masculine design and lots of male sales associates.

That said, David Dirienzo, head of Talbots Mens, contends that Talbots' female customers are the chain's "secret weapon." The truth is, women buy about half of all men's clothes. Anne Hames, who says "90% of my clothes are from Talbots," buys most of the clothes worn by her husband, a physician in west Tennessee. She began ordering from a Talbots Web site last year. Says Hames: "They're a whole lot nicer than L.L. Bean and far superior even to Brooks Brothers."

Zetcher is bucking industry-generated hype that suits are making a comeback. He's probably right -- an annual survey of households by research consultants Retail Forward found that just 5% of American men regularly wore a suit to the office in 2002, down from 14% as recently as 1997. Instead, Talbots Mens will offer the same kind of conservative, classic sportswear Talbots now sells to women, aimed at affluent men age 35 to 55. To set its private-label duds apart, Talbots is featuring such surprising colors as raspberry, Nantucket red, even lavender. And it's shooting for designer quality: sweaters with blends of alpaca and cashmere, and khakis made of three-ply Italian fabric. Prices range from $55 for a pair of chinos to just under $400 for sport coats.

For now, Zetcher is hedging his bets. He's opening just six stores this year, another six in 2004, and says he doesn't expect the "real rollout" to begin until late 2005 or even 2006. "They're awfully late," argues Bank's Wildrick. "I'll have 150 more stores open by the time he gets his first 15 up." The slow rollout gives Zetcher plenty of time to pull the plug if the concept flops. But if it doesn't, Talbots could become as dependable a choice for men as it is for women.

By William C. Symonds in Boston

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