Fashion retail: What Armani can learn from Hooters

Sports bars, strip clubs and electronics stores can teach retail experts a lot about the male fashion consumer.

Sean Kondra will only take his girlfriend out shopping if she “shops like a man.” By that, the 37-year-old director of communications for a Toronto-based food technology company means that if his girlfriend picks new clothes out as quickly as possible so they can leave the store fast, she gets “more presents” in the future. “I hate malls,” says Kondra. “You have dance beats emanating from different stores like it’s a competition to see who can annoy me the most. There are lost souls wandering aimlessly in front of me, and I know what socks and what pants I want — but instead of finding them in one place, I have to go foraging around a 10,000-foot store on four different levels.”

A lot of men share Kondra’s aversion to malls, but retail experts say the way men shop is changing. Yes, they don’t care much for the shopping process itself, but they care more and more about looking good. The market for men’s outerwear alone is expected to reach $4.7 billion by 2013, an increase of $400 million in a decade. Which means the men’s apparel retail market could present a rare opportunity to make money in a rough economy. If, that is, retailers figure out how to make the shopping part less of a chore.

To that end, Bertrand Pellegrin, a 43-year-old retail consultant with years of experience in Asia and Europe — where men have long been connected to their “inner peacock” — has just written a book on the future of men’s retail called Branding the Man: Why Men Are the Next Frontier in Fashion Retail. In it, Pellegrin, who has helped launch concept stores for Louis Vuitton and Gucci, argues there is a disconnect between the changing needs of the North American male customer (who is becoming more vain, but would still prefer a lobotomy to an afternoon of shopping) and retailers who haven’t evolved to meet their demands.

The main problem, he says, is that most men’s stores are just modified versions of a space that was really designed for women, rather than a space that men truly feel comfortable in. With the disappearance of classic “male” environments like gentlemen’s clubs and the home den, Pellegrin says guys need a place where they truly feel masculine. So he turned to three classic male environments — the sports bar, the electronics store and, a bit bizarrely, the strip club — for inspiration.

The lesson from the sports bar, he says, is that retailers need to create unfussy lounge areas for men to “hang out” in, much as they would at the local pub. Such areas should be stocked with distractions, so that men aren’t forced to interact directly. At a sports bar, Pellegrin says, “you can watch sports and talk to the screen, but actually you’re talking to the guy next to you.” Similarly, he says, “some stores have leather couches and a place where men can leaf through magazines.”

The lesson from the electronics store is that guys need products on display that they can fiddle with. “It’s the interactivity with the product itself that’s appealing. If you go on any given day, you see guys exploring a new product, trying to understand it and very often explaining to his girlfriend what it can do and why this one is better than the other,” he says. “That’s a very masculine thing to do.”

Finally, while Pellegrin is not suggesting that the Gap should install brass poles, he does say that strip clubs excel in the art of reminding men they are masculine, and retailers could learn from this. “I think men do struggle with wondering whether people see them as masculine enough in both personal and business relationships,” he says. “I think guys really respond to a person who acts like their buddy.” He adds, “Of course, a hot but approachable female doesn’t hurt either.”

To complete the environment, Pellegrin says retailers have to be careful to avoid pestering customers. Melissa Austria, owner of GotStyle menswear store, which opened in downtown Toronto four years ago, agrees. Her “clubhouse-like” loft store is outfitted with leather chairs, a barber shop, an in-house tailor and a lounging Burmese mountain dog, and she directs staff to focus on educating clients rather than pressuring men to buy. “We are never allowed to say ‘Can I help you?’ We say, ‘Hi, have you been to the store before? Let me give you a tour,’” says Austria, who takes cues on what men hate about shopping from her guy friends.

Retailers still have a long way to go, Pellegrin says, but the current less-than-ideal economy may prove to be the catalyst for some much-needed change. “Men are a long-term investment,” he says. “It will take time, but unlike women, men are far more loyal as a consumer. When they find something they like — they stick to it.”