business news in context, analysis with attitude

Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy last week, "joining the running list of retailers that have stumbled amid the coronavirus pandemic," GQ writes.  "It had already made the decision to close 51 of its more than 200 stores in early April, but is moving ahead with plans to reopen its remaining stores as America undergoes a rocky emergence from the pandemic-mandated shutdown."

However, while the company blames the shutdown for its woes, GQ (which knows about this stuff) notes that Brooks Brothers was unable to adapt to changing consumer tastes.  It was "once a go-to for postgraduates with Wall Street dreams, and suit-clad career men with Wall Street realities, and grandfathers everywhere," but "as business dress standards relaxed - Goldman Sachs even pivoted to a casual dress code in March 2019 - the 'business casual' uniform became less codified, and suits more expressive.

"Aesthetically, young American men have pivoted to streetwear labels like Supreme and Palace for the off-duty wardrobe that was once dominated by preppy basics, while brands that mix nouveau prep codes and streetwear shapes, like Aimee Leon Dore, Noah, and John Elliott, have usurped the mental space that was once reserved for J. Crew and Brooks’ office-appropriate basics."

The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that when Sur La Table filed for bankruptcy protection last week and announced its intention to sell itself, it was at the end of a five-year road in which three different CEOs and $15 million in capital from its private equity owners could not reverse a "meaningful revenue decline."

Current CEO Jason Goldberger wrote that Sur La Table’s “business operations, like those of many of their peers in the retail space, have been negatively impacted by adverse market trends, including the shifting of sales from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers to online retailers, a marked decline in at-home cooking, and changing consumer preferences."

The pandemic only made things worse, the Business Journal writes:  "Sur La Table, which pays $45 million annually for its rental spaces, couldn’t make its monthly payments to landlords. It furloughed 94% of its nearly 3,000-strong workforce. At one point, five people ran operations in its Seattle headquarters. Going into the pandemic, the retailer had at least $80 million in debt and an additional $37 million-plus owed to vendors. As a result of the pandemic, Sur La Table permanently closed 23 locations."

KC's View:

I actually think I own one Brooks Brothers suit - navy blue - but I have no idea where it is, and have no idea when I last wore it.  It isn't like I am an avatar of fashion, though … when GQ writes about more current brands such as Aimee Leon Dore, Noah, and John Elliott, I have no idea who or what they are.

But even for someone of my age, when I would walk by a Brooks Brothers window, it would seem as if it were from another time, like some sort of "Twilight Zone" episode.  (I'm thinking "A Stop At Willoughby," from the series' first season.)  As charming as that may seem, there's a difference between being retro and just gathering dust … and Brooks seemed to be more like the latter than the former.

I'm more upset about Sur La Table, because I would go into one of those stores and wander/fantasize … some guys like hardware stores, but for me, Sur La Table was all about wish fulfillment.  But again, it didn't seem to find a customer sweet spot, and the fast turnover of CEOs suggests that there was no strategic intelligence with a long-term view.  Then again, maybe thinking long-term is more difficult when the short-term seems so perilous.