Father’s Day Offers Hopes to Beleaguered Retailers

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Fingers crossed: the coronavirus may actually provide a boost to Father’s Day sales this year — at least that’s the hope of some major men’s wear retailers.

With COVID-19 fatigue in full force and stores reopening nationwide, merchants are seeing some major upticks in their men’s wear sales — in person, curbside and online — as shoppers seek gifts for their dads. But don’t expect a lot of ties and dress shirts to be wrapped up on Sunday. With many people still working from home for the foreseeable future, it’s not surprising that activewear is among the most purchased gifts this year. Other popular choices include tech gadgets, golf shirts and hats, and comfortable basics.

This bump in men’s sales is also providing a flicker of hope to retailers about what they can expect for the remainder of the year. Although the situation with COVID-19 remains fluid and uncertain, most retailers are optimistic that business will continue to improve as the fourth quarter and all-important holiday season approaches.

At Kohl’s Corp., the retailer has been “listening and following the cues of customers and what they’re responding to,” said Doug Howe, chief merchandising officer. That includes monitoring the store’s social media channels for feedback and reviews.

“Overall, we stand for great brands, value and convenience,” he said. And that includes an increasing focus on activewear, which has been an “incredible initiative for us,” he said, and now represents more than 20 percent of the company’s business overall. Led by Nike, Under Armour and Adidas in apparel and New Balance, Vans and Converse in footwear, the activewear category has become a “core strength” for Kohl’s, Howe said.

During the pandemic, activewear has increased in importance even more, he added, as customers can’t go to gyms and are embracing a more casual way of life.

In the past, Kohl’s would have focused on the more traditional categories of dress apparel and accessories for Father’s Day, but 2020 is not just any year.

“We still have a dress shirt and furnishings business, but the casual trend continues to get stronger,” he said. So the major push for Father’s Day this year includes polos, T-shirts and shorts, basics, golfwear and denim, along with an “extensive assortment of gifts” such as games and puzzles, kitchen appliances, backyard gear and electronics. Top brands for the retailer include Izod, Van Heusen, Chaps, Sonoma and Croft & Barrow, along with Eddie Bauer and Columbia for outdoor recreation.

The company’s web site has a number of categories featured including active, golf, wearable technology and sports-related merchandise and gift suggestions in a wide range of prices under $15, $25, $50 and $100. And the marketing message, both in direct communication with customers as well as on the company’s web site, centers around spending time with dad at home.

Looking beyond Father’s Day, Howe believes these casual categories will continue to do well as they generally do in times of economic downturn.

As more and more of Kohl’s stores open, Howe is confident men’s will continue to strengthen as time goes on. “It’s still very early days, but we have a great assortment of brands and we’re cautiously optimistic and feel good about the stores we have open.”

Jeff Useforge, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for J.C. Penney, said he thinks Father’s Day “is going to be an even bigger deal this year — and we are prepared. Family has become more of a focus during these strange times — kids are seeing dad at home more than ever as our country has shut down for weeks, and families have become more of a focal point.”

For the holiday, Penney’s is focusing on what Useforge called “chill and move” occasions, “with ‘move’ focused on activewear and ‘chill’ focused on comfortable casuals, as customers are staying at home and workwear has become more relaxed. These have become popular categories, specifically in men’s, as consumers have also moved toward more walks in the neighborhood, grilling at home, and similar activities.”

Since the pandemic started, Useforge said Penney’s has adjusted its strategy to a shift in sales. “Some of the standard gifts for dad are still hugely important this year, like grilling and tech, yet we’re planning differently in areas like travel gifts since people haven’t been on the go in the last 10 weeks or so. Our team is focused on gifts that apply to being at home like home office and desk gifts, wireless speakers, at-home shaving kits, and items to make family time and staying at home more enjoyable.”

Penney’s marketing efforts have also been adjusted as a result of the pandemic with an increased focus online, he said. And the company’s web site offers categories of gift ideas if customers need “a little prompting for what dad might like or what works within their budget.”

The web site is broken up into sections for the active dad — Nike Ts, PGA Tour golf shorts, Adidas sneakers — or the outdoor dad, where St. John’s Bay, G.H. Bass, Wrangler and Hi-Tec shirts and pants are featured. There are also sections centered around cooking, furniture and grooming products from Clinique, Kiehl’s and Lab Series.

“The online experience really becomes a window for the product, and then the customer gets to decide if they want to go pick it up via contact-free curbside pickup, order and ship to their home, order and pick up from one of our stores — whatever works best for them,” Useforge said. “Our priority is to serve our customers better than ever in this digital world and ensure they have an engaging shopping experience.”

Bloomingdale’s always has a strong Father’s Day business and while the climate may be different this year, the retailer is embracing what Dan Leppo, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s, said are the “national trends of the business.” In apparel, that translates into ath-leisurewear, or pieces that move beyond workout gear to offer a more comfortable, cozy aesthetic. So in addition to the standbys of Nike and Adidas, the store has seen traction with “more-subtle” brands such as Stone Island, he said.

“We’re looking at things through more of a cozy lens,” Leppo said, pointing to garment-dyed T-shirts and knits and easy-to-wear pants with an elastic waist that are an “alternative to denim.”

Standout pieces include Boss’s fleece tops, Stone Island’s lightweight technical outerwear and garment-dyed fleece — “what th
ey’re wearing in a work-from-home environment,” Leppo said. And with men spending more time at home, there’s an emphasis on gifts for the home such as pizza ovens, barbecue sets, Baccarat tumblers and more.

Other categories that are doing well include swimwear, shorts and polos that men can wear now that they’ve begun leaving their homes. “It’s the uniform for outside the house,” Leppo said. Think Vilebrequin swimsuits and polo shirts from McQ and Psycho Bunny.

With many stores just reopening or still being limited to curbside pickup, Leppo said the message will be “more subdued” on the sales floor this year in favor of online and digital marketing.

“We went all-digital for Father’s Day two years ago, so we’re pushing what we feel the trends are that the customer wants now as well as forward-thinking ideas,” he said. The campaign this year centers around “Let’s Hear It for the Dads,” and is intended to help families show their gratitude. Other messages include the “Top 10 Gifts Dad Doesn’t Already Have,” “Give Dad an Upgrade,” and “Gifts Under $100 to Kick Off Summer.” The retailer wasn’t able to do a shoot this year and instead used black-and-white photos of real dads that are slightly grainy and intended to evoke a warm, nostalgic vibe.

Other top gift items featured on the site include sport shirts from Theory, a Hyperice massager, Tag Heuer smart watch, a GFore golf trucker hat that reads: “Pray for Birdies,” a Will Smith hoodie and Ferragamo slides.

Leppo said overall, the apparel business has been soft and he’s expecting the same for Father’s Day. “And it’s going to be a challenging fall,” he believes. “The world stopped on a dime and we’re re-creating our assortment the best we can. Demand will be soft and will come back slowly. Dress-up will be slower to return, but it will come back when people get sick of casual clothing.”

Mark Stocker, general business manager for men’s and kids for Macy’s Inc., said Father’s Day has historically been a strong holiday for the retailer and since the company’s stores have started reopening, he has seen an uptick in business.

“We have performed well in the past and we’re proud of our assortment this year,” he said. “Since stores have opened up, we’ve been pleased with the response to the men’s assortment. We’re happy with a lot of what we’re selling. When the customers return to the stores, they’re returning to the categories that have done well in the past.”

Like the other merchants, Stocker said for Macy’s, that includes strength in the “more casual than dressy” parts of the business, notably activewear and basics, along with fragrance. He said with everyone working from home, this isn’t unexpected, and luckily, most of the assortment was already in the pipeline before the pandemic hit, so there are plenty of goods available.

“We’ve seen a bit of a pullback in the dressy businesses with weddings and other celebrations being canceled,” he said.

What is different this year is the way Macy’s is engaging with its customer, he said. “We’re more digital, which is not a bad thing,” he said, since it allows the company to service not only its existing customers, who have not been able to shop in-store, and also attract a more digitally savvy consumer.

But that means in-store events, where Macy’s would have brought in athletes, DJs, done fragrance samplings and more, are being replaced this year by a focus on health and wellness.

On the Macy’s web site, there are links to “Shop by Personality,” which include The Dapper Dad (Lauren by Ralph Lauren ties and dress shirts, monogrammed razor and brush sets and Bar III suit separates;, The Master Chef (smokeless grills and lobster pots); The Adventurer (Tommy Hilfiger swim trunks, The North Face hoodies and Levi’s cargo shorts); The Tech Guru (Fitbits, JBL headphones and Kodak digital film scanners); The Fitness Enthusiast (Under Armour tech polos, Nike training pants and New Balance running shoes) and The Well-Groomed Man (Hugo Boss, Polo or Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio fragrances).

Stocker said he’s expecting the men’s business to further improve as the year goes on. “We’re looking to fall with regards to how we can protect our assortment and invest in what the consumer knows us for. And we’ve also attracted new consumers over the last two months. We do a great job with holiday and we’re able to offer gifts at price points that are important to them. So I feel optimistic.”

Chris Riccobono, founder of Untuckit, is hopeful, but cautious. He said the company had opened around half its 87-store fleet after “fighting corona for four months,” but then the nationwide protests caused several to close again.

“People didn’t want to shop because they were focused on world events more than buying clothes,” he said. But as Father’s Day approaches, sales have started to tick up. “We’ve seen a pretty big bump in the last few days and it’s clearly Father’s Day buying,” he said.

Much of that business is still online where polos, performance button-downs and more relaxed models have been popular since the stay-at-home orders were enacted in March. However, a lot of those sales were at promotional prices. “We didn’t really have an option,” he said.

To boost business for the holiday, Untuckit created a Father’s Day gift guide both online and in a print catalog format. Categories included gifts under $100, items targeted to golf, summer outings and hot work days in a variety of colors, prints and patterns. There’s even a section centered around matching father-and-son shirts — Mini-Me — and a design-your-own section where shoppers can choose the details on the shirt, for $128.

There’s also a chat option on the platform where shoppers can work virtually with sales associates from the stores who can walk them through the sales process.

“For two months, everybody had to work from home and wore joggers, but now we’re saying it’s time to get dressed again,” Riccobono said.

Looking ahead to fall, he said it’s hard to know what will happen with the virus and the ongoing protests, but he’s hopeful that business will continue to improve. “There’s so much at play, but I think we can assume that the world will calm down,” he said. “Our plan calls for coming out of this by mid-summer, but I don’t think we’ll get back to ‘normal’ until we get a vaccine.”

Bob Mitchell, co-chief executive officer of Mitchells Stores, is also feeling the uncertainty. Although the company’s flagship in Westport, Conn., reopened around three weeks ago, business is still not up to what it usually is in June. The Marios flagship in Seattle has remained closed along with the Wilkes Bashford store in downtown San Francisco, but the others in Portland, Ore.; Palo Alto, Calif., and Huntington, N.Y., are now open.

“There’s a radical transformation in what people are wearing,” he said. “Nobody’s getting dressed up, they’re wearing sweats, T-shirts and shorts.” He doesn’t see this trend changing anytime soon, so the big question is how luxury retailers can reinvent themselves to meet this new demand.

That being said, Mitchell said the company had a good Mother’s Day and is expecting the same for Father’s Day. Although traffic is down, “a large number of sales have been purposeful buying,” he said, for events such as birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

To promote the holiday, Mitchells Stores made a big push on its stores’ web sites to “make Father’s Day impactful.” And customers are responding, with knitwear, shorts, jeans, sneakers and activewear among the most popular items. “Everything related to casual is showing signs of growth,” he said. “We’re still selling luxury sportswear from Loro Piana, Cucinelli and Zegna, and our contemporary business is good. But for Father’s Day, it’s more about updati
ng your true casual wardrobe.”

Among the items it is pushing for the holiday are a Brunello Cucinelli cardigan, Orlebar Brown swim trunks, Peter Millar sport shirts, Shinola watches, Raffi quarter-zip pullovers and a Faherty pocket polo.

He said during the pandemic, the company’s digital platform “exploded,” but e-commerce still represents a small percentage of overall sales. Mitchell believes that the future for retailers like him will lie in using more digital tools to highlight the personal service the company is known for. “It’s not about click-and-buy,” he said, “but having our sales associates work with clients remotely. That’s the future for us until people feel comfortable coming back into stores.”

Although he’s keeping an upbeat attitude, Mitchell knows it’s not going to be an easy next few months. “Until people go back to their offices, travel and go to events, it’s going to remain incredibly challenging,” he said. “But at some point, people will come back to stores and we believe that those human relationships will drive business.”

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