Angus Thomson – Thomsons Suits – CEO Business Marketing Interview 40

Angus talks about the fundamentals of good fashion, how to make a good first impression, what makes a great suit and how to do a wardrobe audit (and throw out most of what’s in there!)

Angus also shares how Thomsons Suits has evolved during a period of substantial change where over 21 menswear stores are now down to 2 owner operators including how they’ve brought in new staff to respond to the next generation of fashion leaders.

PLUS Angus talks about lifetime customer relationships from school uniforms, to school balls, first job suits and weddings and dealing with competition for share of wallet spend from non traditional retail categories such as iPhones and tablets.

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Ryan: This is the Ryan Marketing Show and you’re listening to episode 40 of 100. Today on the show I have Angus Thomson from Thomson Suits In Hastings, Hawkes Bay. Great to have you on the show, Angus.

Angus Thomson: Thank you very much, great to be here.

Ryan: You have a kind of interesting business here because you’re responsible for first impressions of guys, business people, throughout Hawkes Bay and probably further afield around New Zealand. How do you go about keeping up with the latest trends versus making sure that you have stock items that never go out of fashion?

Angus: Absolutely. What we do is we indent a certain amount of our products so we’re looking at winter for next year 2017, and we’re buying that now do you’ve got to make sure that you—what you buy is forward fashion. Then we also do rely on a stock support programme from our suppliers so that’s availability of suits and trousers from the suppliers straightaway. But that fashion focus we have to order approximately eight to twelve months in advance and that’s something a little bit different. And it is very important that you only get one—you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression so that first impression has to be spot on.

Ryan: And for that first impression, what staple pieces should every man have in their wardrobe to be available for dinner wear or for events or for even just going to work on a daily basis—what are the fundamentals?

Angus: Good question. So, we always believe, depending on your situation, but a good suit in a wardrobe -two-button, single-breasted, neat-fitting – not too tight, not too loose, anything with centre venting at the back, so really is designed for twin vents out the back, single-breasted, seeing a little bit of double-breasted coming in now but it’s still probably another six months to a year away. Also a nice, clean white shirt. That will take you everywhere that you need to be dressed up as. In regards to the casual side of thing, nice sort of denim, nice dress denim with an open-necked shirt.

Ryan: Okay. So that’s a good fundamental base and from what you’re seeing in Hawkes Bay, do you—when you have people coming in to the shop, are there particular things that continue to strike you as surprising of what people are wearing?

Angus: Absolutely. So we get people that come in with twin-pleat trousers – so they went out about ten years ago, the big, baggy trousers with the pleats in the front. And when we get them to try on a plain front, sort of nicer fitting trousers, they’re a little bit reluctant to start with, but when they see them on, it’s like – oh my goodness, should have had these on years ago. And also it’s more the sort of slimmer-fitting suits as well, gone are the boxy shaped suits that sort of hang on you like a sack, they’re all a lot more fitting now, so when people get those on for the first time, they’re a little bit unsure of it. But once they see it in the mirror, and their wives, partners see it, they certainly follow that trend.

Ryan: And does that trend still apply for all the different body shapes out there? Or would there be certain circumstances where those boxier shapes do still apply?

Angus: Not really. We do have about six different styles that are off the rack for suits—talking about suits here—that will cover 95 per cent of the male population. So the guys that are slightly bigger built, we have slightly fuller fitting suits, but it’s still a nice, nice look that doesn’t hang off them like the sack.

Ryan: Okay. So if they’re nearby their wardrobe right now, and looking through and doing a bit of an audit, what should they be immediately reviewing and potentially replacing?

Angus: So only jackets, anything double-breasted, throw out, anything that sort of hangs off the shoulders or is really full around the waist, get that out of there. Come on and see us. If you’re not sure about it, bring it into us and we can say that’s still okay, you can get away with that, or maybe time to give that to hospice and update the wardrobe a little bit more.

Ryan: Right. So comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean fashionable.

Angus: Correct, yeah.

Ryan: And by the same token, if they’ve got a favourite blazer or suit, can you readjust some of them, or if it’s been made, is that kind of it?

Angus: We can take them in to a certain extent, so through the waist, take them in by approximately 8 cm. And the shoulders, that’s somewhere where we don’t really like touching. Once you touch the shoulders, you can always tell it’s been altered, but through the body, yeah we can certainly adjust there.

Ryan: Okay. Now let’s talk a little bit about the business itself. So Thomson’s Suits has been around for some time, almost—that’s 1957—so that’s 59 years?

Angus: 59 years, so big 60th next year, in May. So big celebration there. And certainly the times have changed. 25 years ago, there were 21 menswear stores in Hastings alone, and now there’s only two owner-operators, and then you’ve got the chain stores of the likes of Hammer and Stones, and Farmer’s. So what we’re saying is the suppliers that we deal with haven’t got as many shops to sell to so they’re diminishing as well. But the type of product that people are buying has certainly changed over the years as well.

Ryan: You must have had to fend off some pretty serious competition over the decades—or the Thomson family. Is there any one in particular that stands out as a moment where—that you were under threat or under challenge and you saw your way through it?

Angus: Not that I know of. There has been—not really a rivalry as such, but a friendly rivalry because my grandfather who started the business back in 1957, he had been working for Colin Blackmoore or Blackmoore’s prior to that for twenty years and then decided to up and open this store. And so there’s been that friendly rivalry between the two. And I think Blackmoore’s closed down 1992.

Ryan: So that’s a win then.

Angus: That’s a win, but you never like to see another menswear retailer go down. We always like the competition. It keeps us honest. And it’s always good to be able to talk with them to see what’s happening, you know, if they need help, if they need any stock from us, we’re able to give it to them and vice versa.

Ryan: I guess being an industry where it’s not just about the fabric or the product, it’s as much about the relationship and the service you get from someone when you are getting your suit, or coming in– do you tend to have those relationships with customers where you know all their key marks[?] times in their lives because they tend to be the one they’re wearing suits to, for example?

Angus: Absolutely. We do a couple of schools for the uniforms which is Hereworth and Lindisfarne and we’ve watched them sort of grow up through the school years. And then they’ve got the school balls, and then they come through us for their wedding suits, and so after the wedding then they get their jobs, so they come in for their first suit as well, so we do see that sort of continuation which has been really good to do.

Ryan: That’s just sparked a memory for me, actually. I think I’ve come into the shop for my school uniform for Hereworth.

Angus: Ah, yes, yes.

Ryan: I think that’s one of my first memories, actually, of being in Thomson’s Suits.

Angus: Yes. And was that a good memory?

Ryan: I believe it was. I was excited to go to school.

Angus: Excellent.

Ryan: And I think I was—jeez, I must only have been about 10 or 11years old.

Angus: Yeah.

Ryan: But even back then, I think the importance of looking good—and it has an impact on how other people perceive you. Particularly of what we’ve been talking about with first impressions.

Angus: Absolutely.

Ryan: So suits aren’t just for business. They can be for fashion. And looking on your site, you’ve got two of the younger generation bringing in their influence with Ben Graham and Murray Price. Have we seen what they’ve brought to the business, to change what you offer?

Angus: Before Ben and Murray arrived, we had a couple of very long-serving staff, Bruce Georgie, who’d been here 28 years, who’s just recently retired, and John Darrow who’d been here for 44 years.

Ryan: Wow.

Angus: And my father, Mike, who’s still working here and it’s going to be his 50th anniversary in November—so there was that old school thought of old school fashion, old school sort of way of life as well. So the young guys have certainly sparked up Thomson’s Suits, brought the new fashion forward, which is brilliant. And there’s a few pieces of clothing that have come in and I’ve been unsure of, and sure enough, they go out the door to the younger guys. Talking about competition, we had Hallenstein’s from down the road—they didn’t really do much in suits for a long time, and then all of a sudden they’ve been very big in suits. Not to the same quality we’ve got. And what we’ve found is that the younger generation have bought their suit from there, worn it a couple of times, and think ‘I look pretty good in this’. But now they’re looking something a bit better, so that’s actually helped us in the longer term.

Ryan: Interesting.

Angus: So the younger guys getting dressed up, enjoying how they’re looking because they can afford the – sort of the cheaper suits – and then come down to us and get something slightly better.

Ryan: That’s a smart insight, because often competitors are seen as the competition but competitors can actually be your friends, particularly if they’ve got large marketing budgets, like many nationwide franchises do, in re-educating a new market on a particularly product. Even if it is the low-end pole-iest of suit, at least someone is wearing a suit and then they know that that particular genre is for them.

Angus: Absolutely.

Ryan: Do you find, particularly with the 20-somethings, 30-somethings, that you are competing for dollars outside fashion? Because there are all these other shiny objects that people can buy nowadays?

Angus: Definitely. Back sort of 20 years ago, the household would have one tv, one car, one washing machine, not many computers around. These days, everyone needs the latest iPhone, needs the latest Samsung, computers, laptops, tablets, and also with the television, cars, so spending habits have changed very much. It’s not just going into the clothing shop cause you’ve got a bit of spare money, you’ve done all the main purchasing for the household. Now, yeah, a lot of that money goes elsewhere.

Ryan: I guess from a gender perspective, women still appreciate a man that’s well-dressed and probably more so than what phone they’re carrying in their pocket, and for some groups of people, that may be more important still.

Angus: Absolutely. We get a lot of women coming in here buying for their husbands, or the husbands would come and—or boyfriends would come and—have a look at something and be unsure about it. The wife or the girlfriend will come and go ‘Yeah, you need that. Try this on as well.’ And so she does a lot of the dressing much to the guy’s dismay, because he had that sort of eye for an item but the women certainly appreciate that look.

Ryan: Now on the technology side of things, you know, purchasing behaviour has certainly moved online and is continuing to grow. What’s your take on selling fashion and clothing wear online?

Angus: We believe that there is a gap in the market for that. What we find is a lot of our customers do a lot of search online, so they’ll research suits, jackets, trousers, shirts, but most of them still will want to feel it. Cause I think a lot of people have been caught with seeing something online, buying it, it comes and it doesn’t fit or doesn’t feel very nice, doesn’t stand up to what they perceived they were going to get. Yet when they can do the research online, come into a store, try it on, make sure it fits, make sure the fabric is right. And then get the—what I’m trying to say…

Ryan: [laughter]

Angus: …is our advice to make sure that they get what they’re after.

Ryan: Because there are so many details you can get right, whether it’s the cuffs, or the colour, or the inside lining, all those different things, and certainly it helps to have some advice from someone that does that on a daily basis, day-in-day-out.

Angus: Absolutely.

Ryan: Does that then mean that for the e-commerce side of things that you are limited just to the Hawkes Bay market, or once you have measurements, can you then supply throughout New Zealand?

Angus: Absolutely. So we do sell online as well, we do recommend people coming into the store to try on, but I’m seeing that we do send to Australia, England, and we’ve got quite a few customers that are actually based in Auckland, Wellington, that come on their holidays to here and they either email or give us a call and we can send things to them because we’ve got their sizes and what they’ve bought on record.

Ryan: That’s quite smart, actually, because I guess in Hawkes Bay you’ve got a little bit more time, it’s a very central location here, you can go in for multiple fittings, whereas in Auckland, that may not be the case. It may be a few hours in the traffic just for those short fittings for the adjustments.

Angus: Definitely. And the people that come from Wellington and Auckland, they say there’s not a store like this in Auckland or Wellington; they’ve got a suit shop, or a shirt shop, or a shoe shop. And this here just feels like a nice, relaxed atmosphere, they don’t feel pushed. They’ve got time to look around and try things on.

Ryan: There’s something unique, I think, about family businesses and that’s how you get to have all this built-up intellectual knowledge, over not just years but decades and generations. And that, in some of the biggest cities, is far harder to come by.

Angus: Yeah, definitely.

Ryan: How have you and your family managed to keep this business going for so long, through so many different ebbs and flows?

Angus: Very good question, that. Our main priority is customer service, and the quality of product. So the product that we have in store, we stand behind it, and we genuinely only deal with the suppliers that stand behind their product as well. So if someone comes in and says this hasn’t worn as what I’d thought, we have a look at it and generally we make the call – not good enough, here’s a replacement. We send the faulty product back to the supplier who cleared it up. And there hasn’t been many a times when we’ve had to wear the cost; there’s been the odd occasion, but we certainly do look to see if it’s a good client, then no questions asked. And that’s how we basically stand by what we sell. The other one is customer service where we try not to push the customer. We help the customer by…

Ryan: Focusing more on the education side.

Angus: Yeah, absolutely, rather than saying ‘This looks great on you’, whether it does or it doesn’t. Because when they walk out of here, and wear that shirt or suit, someone will come up to them and say ‘Oh, where’d you get that suit from? It doesn’t fit very well.’ That’s not what we’re about. We want people to say ‘Where’d you get that suit from? That looks great. I’m going to have to go into that store.’

Ryan: Excellent. How do you get that message out to a wider audience? What are your marketing channels you operate that helps you share that message?

Angus: Probably the best one is word-of-mouth. The old adage of one happy customer will tell two friends, and one unhappy customer will tell 100 friends. Word of mouth is very important for us, but we do deal with the local paper, the local radio stations; also with online social media—that’s certainly making a big way for us. For 57 years, we haven’t really touched the online side of things, and we just started that in the last six months, pushing forward, which has certainly had a very positive impact. We also do direct market as well, direct mailing.

Ryan: So you’ve really got the whole marketing mix there. And that is always important because marketing is about layers and knowing where your customers are. Is there much measurement that goes on or do you just put that in the mix and say that we put enough out there we know we’re at least going to have awareness?
Angus: We’ve done a couple of surveys where we can tell what radio station is being listened to and they also come back with this is the demographic of that station and that station. But we also like to ask our customers where they’ve heard about us, why did they come in today type of thing. The direct mail has an instant reward, so they come and say ‘we got something in the mail’, so you know straightaway that that’s worked, or if no one comes in after we’ve done something like that, then that’s been a bit of a failure. Social media, that’s probably the easiest one to find out if that’s worked because of the amount of information you can get back from it. It’s really the radio and the newspapers which is very hit-and-miss.

Ryan: It’s a black box, really. You know they’re only half as effective, you just don’t know which half.

Angus: Yeah, absolutely.

Ryan: Now, as we sit here in the Thomson’s Suit Store, upstairs you’ve got this amazing border of photos of all the different incarnations of Thomson’s Suits. What’s in store next after—what’s the next set of photos that are going to go up here?

Angus: Well, there’s going to be—the next set will be my father’s 50th anniversary and retirement, so that’s going to be a big celebration for him—or commiseration, he’s not sure yet, whether he wants to retire. And then next year is our big 60th – been in business for 60 years, which I think is pretty fantastic in this day and age. And then from there, certainly we have a few things planned, but they’re under wraps at this moment.

Ryan: Excellent. Well, you’re right, almost 60 years in business, particularly in the retail sector, and in fashion, I think is highly commendable. And I look forward to seeing where you take the business once your father does retire. And good luck in the future.

Angus: Thank you very much.

Ryan: Thanks for your time.

Angus: Fantastic.

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