Distinctive Apparel’s three brands target 45- to 65-year-old men and women yet each has a very different customer profile. Chadwicks was founded in 1983 and offers value-driven casual and career clothing for women with an emphasis on updated traditional styling. Metrostyle was founded in 1994 and appeals to women with a “bolder” sense of style and who want to be noticed. Territory Ahead began in 1988 as a men’s clothing business and now includes women’s clothing offering unique fabrics, patterns, products and silhouettes in a wide variety of colors. “We stand for the same thing they all did when they began nearly 30 years ago and that is quality you can count on and value you can trust,” Chapin says. “Consistency has been our mission.”
The company sells its merchandise on all three of the brand’s websites and from catalogs. Distinctive Apparel continues to believe in the value of the printed catalog despite the added expense of mailing because it helps drive traffic to the websites.
“The catalog remains the single most effective web driver, however, it is also the most expensive way to convert new customers as the response rates for prospect mailing is well below that of existing customers,” Chapin notes. “It’s the best and most expensive way to bring customers into the family.”
On the digital side, the company manages unique websites for each of its brands and is constantly testing the myriad of marketing channels available on the web.
When Distinctive Apparel acquired Chadwicks of Boston, Metrostyle and Territory Ahead, it was given the brands’ intellectual property, as well as existing inventory.
“Due to the complexity of securing the Chadwicks of Boston and Metrostyle brands out of bankruptcy, we had a very short window of time to build our new business model and literally create the company from scratch in a couple months,” Chapin says. “We started with 32 of the strongest people we could find and focused on being the very best merchants and marketers. We knew we had to create a highly variable cost business model and so it was critical that we partner with the best third-party service providers in the industry.”
Early relationships with logistics providers, such as UPS and 3PL Worldwide, as well as merchandise partners Jump Apparel and WP Trading Corp. were vital to its early survival. Support from CIT Credit Financing and Rosenthal and Rosenthal helped build the company’s credibility and allowed its suppliers to grow with the business.
“No one person can do everything really well, so we assembled partners to focus on different areas of the business,” Chapin says. “These are partners that had no reason to think we could save these brands, but took a chance on us. Our credibility slowly snowballed.”
Taking a chance on the company wasn’t easy as chatter about the bankruptcy swarmed through the industry during Distinctive Apparel’s first year in operation. “It was challenging to keep the group focused, but I told them to keep the blinders on and let me worry about the nonsense,” Chapin adds. “Our success is due to this group of people. It was really this group of people who helped save the brands.”
Chapin believes the location of Distinctive Apparel also played a major role in the company’s success at revitalizing the brands. “If we had been located anywhere other than the greater Boston area, it would have been much more difficult,” he says. “This part of the country is where so many direct-marketing apparel retailers were born that there are so many skilled people who understand the complexity of a direct-marketing apparel company.”
“Everyone in this business knows more about their job than I do,” Chapin adds. “They teach me about the apparel business. Then it’s my job then to tie it together to make sure the left hand always knows what the right hand is doing.”
Getting in Touch
The company has been tenacious and fighting for its share of the market by keeping a loyal following because it listens to the customer. “We can’t loose sight of the customer,” Chapin says. “We remain focused on our customer by making sure they are happy and want to come back.”
Listening to what the customer is saying to you – directly or indirectly – is the greatest challenge in the industry, Chapin believes. “Listening to the customer sounds so easy, but it takes discipline to know that the buzzing in the corner of your ear is something you should pay attention to,” he adds. Customers are speaking to the company in obvious ways by calling its customer service center and order center or through their behavior when browsing the website. The company goes one step beyond by frequently calling customers to talk with them directly.
It also looks to understand why some customers have only purchased once or twice during a certain period of time. Distinctive Apparel staff has been tasked with calling these customers to understand the reason why they haven’t returned to shop. “We have a living, breathing focus group that’s talking to us,” Chapin says.
Although some customers need to be contacted by the company so it can learn about particular shopping patterns, others are more transparent about their experience. Distinctive Apparel says it receives thousands of emails from its customers every day and Chapin and a small team personally read each and every one. “You can’t get caught up thinking you are the big business and the customer is faceless and nameless,” he explains. “If you hear a faint rumbling, you have to have the presence of mind to pay attention. It’s a competitive environment; technology is driving behavior on the web and customers are telling you everything you need to know – if you are willing to listen.”
To better serve its customers, Distinctive Apparel is continually upgrading and remerchandising its brands’ websites. Simple improvements, such as a site optimizer that improves the load time on a product page by milliseconds, Chapin explains, have shown measurable and positive results. “It astounds me, but the proof is in the customers’ behavior,” he says. The sites are also made as simple as possible so customers have to enter their information only once and can order more quickly.
Distinctive Apparel watches its customers’ behavior carefully and responds to the data it receives. Faceted site navigation and advance search tools are critical to improving the customers experience and constantly improving these functions will always be a high priority to the company.
“Technology is advancing so quickly and with that, the customers expectations are more sophisticated than ever,” Chapin says. “In a retail environment where a millisecond can make the difference between a sale and a lost customer, we are always focused on making the experience as simple and predictive as possible.”
To attract new customers to its brands, Distinctive Apparel will continue to advertise and send catalogs to people in its demographic, hoping to spark their interest. New merchandise is constantly being introduced on the websites and in the catalogs and Chapin is determined to keep the brands true to their heritage. “We are not trying to find a younger demographic; we are happy in the position we are in and will always remain committed to our core customer base,” he adds.
Distinctive Apparel is a young company and just getting started with revitalizing its brands. “We have internal and external challenges we face every day, but we continue to keep focused on the things we can control versus the ones we can’t and can only learn from,” Chapin says. “We will continue to make sure our cusotmers are happy and want to come back by making their experience as simple as possible.”
In the future, Chapin hopes to continue to grow the business, retain customers at an increasing rate and bring in new customers at an economically viable level.
“We do all truly love exactly where we are,” Chapin says. “We don’t wish our customer was 30 years old. He or she is 45 to 65 years old and we believe that remains an underserved market.”