business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe
There was a story in The Washington Post last week about how one of the premier men’s clothing chains in the nation’s capital, Britches of Georgetown, was in the process of closing its doors. The reasons, according to the story, were varied. Casual business wear had caught the chain with its pants down, so to speak, and management found it difficult to adjust to changing attitudes and preferences. In addition, there were changes in ownership that created economic challenges, and in the end, despite the fact that it counted among its customers familiar names from the worlds of government and media, the chain simply could not survive.

We’ve never lived in the DC area (despite an abiding desire to do so), so we’d never been a regular customer of Britches. But we knew it by reputation, and had bought some shirts and ties there over the years (back in the days when we wore such things). Its stores were terrific to shop, with attentive salespeople and a sophisticated décor that made us feel like we were in a men’s club. The prices were competitive, the selection differentiated, and the company made its customers feel like they were smart for shopping there.

And still, the company is closing its doors.

For those of us who just like differentiated shopping experiences, a closing like this can only be frustrating. If Britches couldn’t survive, what hope is there for other, less unique retail stores that face overwhelming competition?

Issues of economics and management aside, as we thought about the Britches scenario it occurred to us that the last time we were in one of its stores, it hadn’t seemed all that different than the first time we went there more than a decade ago. We called a couple of friends of ours in the DC area, and they confirmed this observation. Whereas other purveyors of men’s clothing -- Nordstrom was the on most often mentioned -- adjusted to changing times, Britches never seemed able to find its footing on a shifting landscape. One friend, who knows more about retailing than almost anyone we know, said, “Britches never seemed to learn that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards.”

That’s an important lesson for retailers in almost any venue…whether you’re peddling shirts and suits, or produce and packaged food…

The Britches experience suggests how critical it is, in the competitive cauldron of 2003 and beyond, not just how impossible the odds often are, but how fundamental constant innovation, movement and imagination are to business survival.
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