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Inside Lululemon’s men’s store.

Filed under:

Do Big Brands Still Need Men’s Shops?

As Nordstrom prepares to open its first men’s store in New York City, we looked at J.Crew's, Lululemon's, and Topman’s business strategies for attracting male shoppers.

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For years, New Yorkers waited for a Nordstrom store to come to their city.

Sure, there was one heavily picked-over Nordstrom Rack at Union Square and a newly opened, three-story second location at Herald Square, but New Yorkers were told to wait until 2019 for a full-line store at Columbus Circle.

It then came as a surprise to some that another Nordstrom would open in New York City this April: a standalone men’s store.

Nordstrom Inc. says it was an opportunistic move — a space at West 57th Street and Broadway opened up a few years ago, prompting the company to expand its footprint without compromising its vision for the first New York City full-line store — but it reflects a growing retail trend to create spaces exclusively for men to shop.

A mockup of the coming Nordstrom men’s store.
Photo: Nordstrom

“If there’s a category that can exist by itself across the street, it’s men,” says Jamie Nordstrom, president of stores.

Men’s apparel made up 17 percent of about $14.5 billion in revenues for Nordstrom’s 2016 fiscal year, according to the company’s financial documents. That percentage is up from 16 percent in 2014, when revenues only totaled $13.1 billion.

Likewise, men’s apparel was the top-performing merchandise category for the third quarter of fiscal year 2017, according to the company’s financial documents. The company’s men’s business is bigger than many of its competitors’ men’s businesses combined, Nordstrom says.

The company declined to share what it expects to be its return on investment from the men’s store.

However, department stores like Nordstrom aren’t the only ones looking to entice men with a space designed just for them.

Higher-end midrange retailers like J.Crew and Lululemon have standalone men’s stores stocked with a large selection of merchandise compared to their co-ed counterparts. At Lululemon, that selection dwindles to a rack or two of options, whereas J.Crew has a small men’s department in most co-ed stores.

About a quarter of J.Crew’s net sales came from men’s apparel in the 2016 fiscal year. As of October 2017, that number was down by 3 percent, with 21 percent of its business being done in men’s apparel, according to the company’s financial records.

J.Crew men’s store.
Photo: Amanda Eisenberg

The company has 11 U.S. stores dedicated to men’s apparel and suiting, according to J.Crew’s online store locator. The men’s shops are also smaller and tend to be about 900 square feet; the average full-line store is about 6,200 square feet, according to the company’s financial records.

Although most J.Crew men’s stores tend to have a similar aesthetic to a co-ed J.Crew store in any U.S. mall, the retailer’s first men’s store in New York City neighborhood and men’s shopping hub Tribeca leans heavily into more “manly” accents: dark wood panels, antique decor, and cushy leather seats. The store is also located in the former Liquor Store Bar, hence the name and sensibility.

Graham Rapier, a 23-year-old markets reporter and frequent J.Crew shopper, says the aesthetic prevents him from shopping there.

“I’d rather shop in the one that’s co-ed because sometimes men’s stores get weird,” he says. “There are some things, like store decor or whatever, that just don’t need to be gendered or made manly, and it drives me insane.”

Through a spokeswoman, J.Crew declined to speak on its men’s business.

Unlike J.Crew, which sells preppy basics to men, women, and kids at a newly lowered price point, Lululemon has a unique obstacle to acquiring male customers: convincing them to even come into a yoga apparel store for women. And if they did, there might only be a rack or two for male customers to peruse.

“A lot of guys didn’t know we sold men’s clothes,” says Alex Sanders, an actor and part-time employee at the Soho men’s store in New York City.

In fact, the Soho men’s store is the only Lululemon brick-and-mortar space dedicated exclusively to men, although there are 13 men’s stores nestled within other Lululemon shops.

Those co-located stores include an expanded men’s area and unique experiences, such as personalized shop services for consultations and fit sessions, says Ben Stubbington, senior vice president of men’s design at Lululemon.

Those spaces are designed to create brand awareness by talking to men in a new way, he says.

Lululemon brought in $1.7 billion in the 2016 fiscal year from brick-and-mortar stores alone, with an additional $453.28 million from online sales, according to the company’s financial reports. It is likely the company wants to leverage its in-store experiences to drive sales, particularly in the men’s apparel space.

Although the company’s annual financial report did not detail the breakdown in how men’s apparel affects its revenues, Stubbington says that segment is one of the fastest-growing parts of Lululemon’s business.

The men’s store not only aims to engage its customers with its full line of men’s clothes and other services, but also made changes to its shopping bags.

A typical Lululemon shopping bag is small, red, and reusable, with short handles. Sanders says men shopping at the Soho location complained that they felt like they were holding a purse, which led the company to offer black reusable bags with longer handles at the men’s store and the co-located stores throughout the country.

Stubbington called the shopping bag update “an opportunity to provide a more dedicated guest experience,” but it brings to question the gender dynamics at play when cis men are shopping in a space that might not be meant for them.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Sanders says. “Men don’t feel comfortable shopping in a store that identifies with ‘feminine,’ but they should be able to express their consumerism in a way that’s safe to them.”

Lululemon made sure of it.

The men’s store, which was built in 2014, is located in Soho, a trendy shopping neighborhood in New York City; its clientele are fashion-conscious and are likely to be profitable by appealing to its target market, says Jharonne Martis, director of consumer research at Thomson Reuters.

“Lululemon saw a 21 percent increase in new male guests due to new male fashion styles and their first-ever men’s campaign,” she says.

The company launched “Strength To Be,” a global campaign that challenges traditional perceptions of masculinity and strength in positive ways, Stubbington says.

However, the campaign seems at odds with a customer base that would complain about a shopping bag that feels like a purse.

As the retail apocalypse continues to close stores and shut down retailers, seemingly one after another, it’s imperative for retailers to either be really good at what they do or become inclusive.

Lululemon Soho.
Photo: Amanda Eisenberg

Spending millions of dollars to open a store, especially with the greater movement toward digital-first shopping, and slapping on a gendered word — men — seems regressive to the younger shoppers retailers want as customers.

At a store like British fast-fashion retailer Topman, which sells shoes, accessories, and men’s apparel ranging in styles from streetwear to suits, the clothes are so fashion-forward that they could be worn by anyone on the gender spectrum.

Most Topman stores in the United States are located within its sister brand, Topshop, according to the company. And although the floors are explicitly gendered, with men’s clothes on the bottom level and women’s clothes on the top two levels, the Topman floor did not feel like a traditional men’s shop.

One 20-something man eyed silver jewelry at the Topman in Soho, New York, while a woman with long braids flicked through a rack of millennial pink sweatshirts.

Two employees — Adama Diallo, a part-time associate and student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Mykel Ambers, a full-time sales adviser — say they’ve seen people of all gender identities shop on the bottom level of the store.

Topman, within Topshop, in Soho.
Photo: Amanda Eisenberg

Both Topman employees say they’ve stopped assuming that a femme-looking person is shopping for their boyfriend. Sanders, an employee at Lululemon, also says that’s a common question other employees will ask, not realizing they might sound insensitive to someone purchasing men’s clothes for themselves.

“I stopped assuming who someone is going to shop for,” Diallo says. “Now I ask: ‘What are you shopping for?’ They shouldn’t be judged on their size or their appearance.”

The company, which is owned by multinational retailing company Arcadia Group, made 990.8 million pounds, or $1.4 billion, in the 2016 fiscal year, according to Topshop/Topman’s income statement. The statement did not reveal how much of the business came from men’s apparel.

It remains to be seen if men’s stores will withstand the test of time, but for now they are performing.

In Lululemon’s case, Martis says the company’s operating profit margin is stronger than the Textiles, Apparel, and Luxury Goods index, which indicates the business decision to focus on men’s fashion has been profitable.

Sanders adds that the men paying for a $68 T-shirt to work out in may not be aware enough to see that the store they like to shop in may feel exclusionary to those who fall outside of the gender binary.

“This is a space that’s specifically allocated for that version,” he says. “There’s an inherent comfort level” in shopping in a space designated just for men.

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