I like pens and I go into town (that is what you call it when you take the train to Manhattan from where I am) about twice a week. There is a non-Staples pen store a few blocks outside Grand Central, I had a few dollars in my pocket from the last Evening With James Taylor show I did, and 45 minutes to kill. This was the first time I went in since the shutdown. Pre-pandemic the place was like an office supply closet in a Boiler Room, but with good stuff, just all laying on top of other good stuff. You don’t buy expensive pens there, you buy $45 pens, and notebooks you don’t find anywhere else. That’s what I was expecting this time, but when I walked in I was shuttled, shuttled to a Parker pen that was $250ish. By a clearly commission-based salesperson who got visibly annoyed when my daughter texted me in the middle of his pitch.
Went and had a cigar, bemoaning for the umpteenth time, the death of the small business. Story has been told. Wah wah.
Headed back to Grand Central, walked past J Press on 44th, and waved at Robert, who I kinda know a little bit from working with them on the advertising for the site. He waved back. I remembered going in there the last time and telling him a “colorful” story about a school thing – I know when a joke has gone on too long. You can miss the right timing by just a word. I write for the web where short sentences are the order of the day. So when I went on too long, I could feel it. And I remember him being very attentive anyway. I remembered being impressed with that.
So I stuck my head in. Robert is Robert Wolf, he is part of the triumvirate that makes up the sales team (that’s not the right term but for the sake of common understanding) at the store. Dave Hess is also on the floor, and they are managed by Justin Spaeth. When I stuck my head in, Dave and Justin looked up and said hi. They were both in the middle of something retail-y, but they were also gracious. That stuck with me the whole ride home, and when I got to my desk, I wrote my contact there and asked for permission to do this story – about how a, maybe “the” Ivy standard-bearer, a national brand that is pure Americana and Japanese-owned, manages to treat a guy with a ballcap budget like he is turning over his whole wardrobe thrice a year.
Permission granted, I sat down with them and Jon Callahan (who had turned me back on to Dylan the last time we spoke). Jon is the VP of Made To Measure, and knows the retail side as well as anyone. When I started asking questions, Jon waited for his guys to speak first. That stuck with me, too. These guys are not pushy, even in an interview.
“The first thing I noticed the first time I came in,” I started, “was that you all let me look around first. That’s unusual in retail. I am used to someone joining me at the hip and pushing,” I said.
The guys smiled.
“Really,” I nudged, “you go shopping today and you get escorted like you just quit a job and they don’t want you back at your desk.”
“We’re here more to give information,” Justin answered. Justin, if you haven’t been in the store, is unflappable. You could ask Justin where the sharkskin suits were, and he would have a polite answer. And he looks like he means it. “If you come to our store, you are here for a reason. Either you have been coming here for forever, or something in the window caught you, or whatever. In any event, our job isn’t to introduce you to the category. That’s what the merchandise is for. Our job is to give you information and education so that you can make good choices. ”
“What’s the thing most customers need to be educated about?” I asked.
Robert said immediately, “Size. How these clothes should fit so that they are both traditional and flattering.”
I know my size, buddy. I just don’t like to admit it.
“We are more facilitators than salespeople,” Dave said. “We get guys customers who come in every other day – “
“Literally every other day?” I interrupted.
“Yes, literally every other day. Even those customers can make mistakes on sizing. We spend a lot of time on sizing, because once you are in the store you are going to buy something quality, so we don’t need to address that. You are going to buy something in the Ivy canon, so we don’t need to address that. But whether it fits you, sometimes that is something you need a third party to weigh in on.”
Dave’s also a comedian. I don’t mean I am one too, I mean in addition to sales at J Press, he is a working comedian. Robert teaches jazz guitar (how Ivy is that?) and is in a band.
“I think it is important that these guys have other things going on in their lives,” Jon added. “It makes them more rounded people, happier people, and more engaging.”
That was kind of it, I wrote on my laptop. These guys are engaging.
“Is that why there is no upsell here?” I asked. “That’s one of the other things that makes me crazy about shopping retail. You can’t buy just one or two things. You go in for a tie, and you get sold the dinner plates that go with it.”
“I think so,” Robert said. “If we get asked about something that would go with something, of course we make suggestions. But the display speaks for itself a lot. Visually, the store makes the recommendations as the customer looks around.”
“Plus,” Dave added, “you get a sense as you get to know someone about how much help or suggesting they want. Take you, for example. You need a lot of suggestion.”
Dave IS funny.
“I think part of the experience of coming here is the comfort food,” Justin said. “You know what to expect, within reason. The elements are all here, and then the individual puts them together how they like. So it isn’t so much a shove a shaggy dog sweater down someone’s throat thing as it is a make-you-comfortable thing. People enjoy just being here, and that sells.”
I looked at the laptop. “Sure,” I said, “if you are an existing customer. But I am about servicing the existing Ivy base, and then adding to it. People new to Ivy can be intimidated. There are rules.”
“That’s interesting you say that,” Robert jumped in, “because over the last two months we have seen a real increase in first time customers. Young men that come in for suits to wear to work, and that sort of thing.”
“How do you treat them differently?”
“We don’t,” Dave answered. “We are really, really comfortable with the clothing and each other. We spend 40 hours a week or so here with each other, and we all get along really well. And we all know Ivy, we all know traditional clothing and wear it on our days off, and I think that familiarity with both the clothes and the people makes the store a welcoming place. So when you walk in for the first time, you aren’t a guest at a club, you are in a curated store representing a classic brand and are working with people who like both the clothes and each other.”
The guys gave me a ton of information on the future of Ivy, and I am going to quote them in an upcoming piece, so I put some of their quotes in a different folder as I was packing my stuff. I bought a hat to replace a hat I lost, and walked out of the store. I have since lost the replacement hat too.
But I haven’t lost the thing that struck me the most about this store being part of a larger corporation that is revenue-driven but that cares as much about service and the aesthetic. What struck me the most, again, is how important authenticity is to Ivy. And how by not enrolling employees in months of formal training but by instead hiring and cultivating (they have all been here for years) good people who know their business and who have rapport, you are able to do what larger and more aggressive sales teams try to do by chasing me down a hallway.
Authenticity and good nature sells Ivy.