The Proper Retail Approach – Be A Helpful Example.

The fellas outside of J. Press on 44th, NYC

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.

I left.

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.

Robert Wolf, Sr. Sales Associate

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. ”

Justin Spaeth, Store Manager

“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 Hess, Sales Associate

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.

20 Comments on "The Proper Retail Approach – Be A Helpful Example."

  1. Richard E. Press | October 14, 2021 at 8:17 am |

    Retail 101 best expressed in the words and deeds of the J. Press crew. They carry on a great tradition.

  2. This is very good.

  3. Charlottesville | October 14, 2021 at 10:00 am |

    This makes me wish I weren’t 350 miles or so away. It has been several years since I have been to J. Press in New York, and I have yet to visit the current location. This perfectly expresses what menswear retailing, or any retailing really, should be. Buying suits, shirts and ties from the website may provide the same goods, but it is not at all the same experience even if I know my size pretty well by this time.

  4. These Lads are Fine Lads, one need only gaze upon their Fine Knitted Ties and Friendly Visages to see this.

    Tanti auguri amici!

  5. Grey Flannels | October 14, 2021 at 11:03 am |

    This sounds great!
    When I lasted visited J. Press (in 2003), the salesmen were all old men who completely ignored me. If I’m ever in NY again, I certainly intend to visit J. Press. By the way,the staff at Brooks Brothers (around the corner) were just the opposite–helpful and knowledgeable.

  6. J.Press. There is no substitute. 
    I have been a happy, loyal customer since 1964.
    Please, please, please consider opening a shop on the West Coast. 
    Newport Beach would be nice.  
    Just as askin’.

  7. I regret missing out on visiting J. Press years ago when I lived in the city. I was younger and my tastes were different, so I just didn’t know what I was missing. It’s refreshing to see younger guys who have a real understaning of this timeless stuff, and who know how to leave a lasting positive impression on visitors to the store.
    In my experience, the customer service from J. Press online is quite good, as well, but nothing can compare to the in-person experience.
    I’ve realized that my shopping online is, in part, a way to avoid the pushy sales experience at retail stores. The kinds of shops and employees described in this post are rare and precious resources. Whenever it is that I get back to the city, a visit to J. Press will be a must.
    Thanks for the post.

  8. And yes, what a first rate crew you have on board.
    Splendid to see them spotlighted and acknowledged.

  9. These fellows are very good to deal with. But, respectfully, I knew and miss the old timers: Ed Evans, Jerry Haber, David Wilder, Henry Presser, Peter Rossetti, John?, Sergio. I hope that those still with us are all doing fine.

  10. I was working in midtown decades ago when Press, Brooks, Burton, Chipp, Stuart, Tripler et al were still there. I loved taking a long lunch and making the rounds.

  11. Great piece! And I’ll echo Charlottesville’s observations above. Gracious, knowledgeable sales staff? Holy guacamole. I didn’t know there were any left. I shop online for attire and accessories almost exclusively now. It sure beats wading through humanity to make often futile visits to places that don’t carry what I want. Moreover, there is no need to contend with sales help who make up for a general lack of knowledge with unpleasant attitudes. That is when they are not playing with their iPhones. The last really pleasant and fruitful clothes shopping experience I can recall in a physical store was in early 2004 at Hubert White’s in downtown Minneapolis where I purchased a few things on a modest budget for that first teaching job after grad school. They guy who helped me must have been about 70 at the time, but he was great. Said gentleman left me alone until I sought help, knew his stuff up and down, was funny, and genuinely interesting to talk to about things besides attire. Our conversations ranged widely each time I visited until leaving The Cities in December ’04 for the wilds of Central Illinois.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  12. Christian Stanfield | October 14, 2021 at 1:55 pm |

    Great write up. I used to shop the Georgetown store in DC when I was in college in the late ’90s, and I still have & wear a few pieces from those days. Also still have & wear my Brooks double breasted navy blazer from their shop that was located just down the street. Between those two, Brtiches, and the Polo Ralph Lauren shop, that little stretch of Wisconsin north of M Street kept me in clothes the whole time I was enrolled at Georgetown. Looking forward to visiting the new DC shop on my next trip back early next month!

  13. I was actually JUST there a few days ago, visiting the city from California where I live. I walked in and Justin immediately greeted me and was warm and helpful and when I told him it was my first time visiting the actual store after hearing so much about it (he recognized my J Press popover shirt that I was wearing), let me wander and gawk at the store in peace and solitude. I walked out with a shaggy dog sweater.

    The day before I left, I went back to the store and Justin was again there, and when I needed that opinion about the size and fit of a sports coat, he (and Robert) stepped in to help. He even saved me some dough by telling me to ship the coat back home to California to avoid NY’s oppressive sales tax. For my first time visiting the storied J Press, he made it a great experience. Excellent piece and looking forward to the upcoming piece with their quotes.

  14. Robert Ginsburg | October 14, 2021 at 9:51 pm |

    Nobody nicer than the late Jerry Haber. No mater how long between visits from Texas Mr. Haber always remembered me. A real gentleman.

  15. Thank God for J. Press!

  16. René Lebenthal | October 15, 2021 at 5:24 am |

    Beautiful article about an Ivy institution. Such a pity we don’t have J. Press here in Paris.
    Unfortunately it is quite expensive to buy from the US through the web these days.
    Your approach is the GOOD one, for sure. Bon courage et bonne continuation à J. Press.

  17. “You don’t buy expensive pens there, you buy $45 pens….”

    Um….

    Um what? – JB

  18. I cannot say enough good things about everyone at J. Press – especially Robert. He’s been a great help every time I’ve stopped in to see what’s new or purchase MTO shirts. Reading this reminds me I need to see what’s new for winter and say hello.

  19. Matt in D.C. | November 10, 2021 at 7:28 pm |

    The J.Press store in D.C. has equally knowledgeable and congenial sales associates in Mark and Edman. J.Press is a national treasure.

  20. @T Townsend,
    You described an experience I wish I had… Mine was basically the opposite. Ignored, completely (not politely), until I approached one of the three mentioned above. Metaphoric eye-roll when I mentioned this was my first time to the store and I was excited to be there.
    I tried going back a couple days later because I thought the first visit was an anomaly, it wasn’t. Super disappointed.

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