The Washington Post-Jokes Aside At Jos. A Bank

By Sarah Halzack.  www.washingtonpost.com

If men’s apparel chain Jos. A. Bank needed any confirmation that its sales strategy had become something of a national punchline, “Saturday Night Live” served up some hard truth last year.

Cast member Vanessa Bayer, sporting a soccer-mom-sensible cardigan and haircut, bemoans all the kitchen messes created by her clumsy kids and her gawky husband.  And then she lets you in on her marvelous clean-up secret: Suits from Jos. A. Bank.

“With their innovative ‘buy one get three free’ pricing, a suit from Jos. A. Bank is effectively cheaper than paper towels,” Bayer says, swiping a suit coat across the counter to soak up spilled orange juice.

After hearty laughter from the crowd, she adds, “With four suits for the price of a modest dinner, I can feel good about throwing them away when I’m done.”

That sketch aired less than three weeks after Jos. A. Bank was acquired by Men’s Wearhouse in a deal worth $1.8 billion. And Doug Ewert, the chief executive of Men’s Wearhouse, says it was a glaring reminder of the challenges ahead.

“When ‘Saturday Night Live’ parodies your pricing promotions, you know you have a problem,” Ewert said. “It stung.”

The nonstop parade of “buy one, get three free” hasn’t been good for business.  In the second quarter, Jos. A. Bank saw sales sink 9.4 percent at its stores open more than a year.

Instead of reveling in a good deal, customers felt stuck with more suits than they wanted. And, it was making some people question the quality of its clothes. How nice could these suits be if this store is practically handing them out for free?

“They were hurting their own margins and they were hurting their own credibility,” said Richard Jaffe, a research analyst with Stifel.

Now, the company is taking bold steps to try to reinvigorate the brand. On Thursday, Jos. A. Bank will kick off its final “buy one, get three free” sale, putting a nail in the coffin on these eye-popping sales that they’d been running since 2012.  (Their “buy one, get two free” offering had been around since September 2008, when the economy imploded, and their more traditional “buy one, get one free” sales have been around much longer.)

Jos. A. Bank won’t completely abandon promotional pricing, but its new approach will be to give guys good deals on just one or perhaps two suits.  Ewert said you can expect to see promotions such as “one suit for $299, two for $500.”

“We’re going to flip the promotional messaging to talk about what they’re going to pay instead of what they’re going to save,” Ewert said.

[The golden days of 40 percent off sales are over]

In addition to the new approach to deals, Jos. A. Bank is also trying to ditch its reputation for bulky, un-stylish suits. Key to that effort will be its new 1905 clothing collection, a suite of suits, casual clothes and outerwear designed by Joseph Abboud.  Abboud has been creative director of Men’s Wearhouse since 2012 after a career that included designing for Polo Ralph Lauren and creating an eponymous menswear line.  He was brought in to deliver higher style to Men’s Wearhouse, and now he’s being charged with doing the same for Jos. A. Bank.

With 1905, Abboud said he is trying to evoke the brand’s more than 100 years of history while also incorporating silhouettes and styling that would appeal to younger men. Many 1905 pieces are designed in the slim-cut style that Jos. A. Bank so far has been slow to adopt. The collection is set to account for 15 to 20 percent of their assortment this season.

Shirts from the new ‘1905’ collection at the Men’s Wearhouse showroom in New York. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

At Men’s Wearhouse’s 33rd-floor Manhattan offices, Abboud recently showed off his designs, including a classic gray flannel suit, given a twist with a slimmer fit and a vest; an argyle sweater in an earthy color palette instead of primary colors; a donegal tweed jacket styled with three printed items — a sweater, pocket square and tie — instead of more staid solids.

“It is more aggressive in terms of the kinds of fabrics we used, the styling we used, but it’s all in the world of tradition,” Abboud said.

While designing the line, Abboud said he studied not just clothing from the early 20th century, but also crests and fonts that would come to inspire the line’s vintage-looking logo.

“It’s a little bit like Jurassic Park.  We basically had to reconstruct the DNA from the dinosaur,” Abboud said.

The labels of the 1905 collection. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

But Jos A. Bank executives said that kind of careful research was important to hitting a sweet spot with millennials, who many retailers have found are responding to branding messages about craftsmanship and heritage.

[How fashion trends actually make it from the runway to your closet]

In a presentation to investors last year, executives said the average Jos. A. Bank customer was 52 years old, has a six-figure household income and likes to dress traditionally.  As they work to appeal to millennials, though, Jos. A. Bank will be pushing itself closer to the demographic that its corporate brethren, Men’s Wearhouse, is also wooing.

Ewert says the potential for cannibalization doesn’t particularly concern him.  Men’s Wearhouse has a more contemporary, trendy aesthetic, while Jos. A. Bank is going after a guy who wants to dress traditionally without looking old-fashioned. Around the time of the acquisition, the companies combed through their data to see how many of their customers overlapped.  Only 7 percent of them had shopped at both brands in the last 48 months.

“If they can hit their mark on fashion and they can do it at a really good price, there will be a market for that,” said Barbara Kahn, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But that’s a lot of ‘ifs.’”