On Thursday last week, Erik Allen Ford and Sasha Koehn, co-founders of menswear brand Buck Mason, began discussing ways to keep both employees and customers safe during the coronavirus outbreak. By Thursday, they had made a decision. On Friday, all 10 of the brand’s stores had closed their doors for the foreseeable future.
Buck Mason is one of many brands across the DTC fashion space that has made the decision to close its stores to limit the spread of the virus. Koehn and Allen Ford have set out to make the best of the situation, transitioning “a healthy percentage” of their more than 70 store employees to other roles in customer support and online sales. It’s an effort to capitalize on the current lift in e-commerce and bring some of its in-store services, like styling, online.
For DTC brands like Buck Mason, closing retail stores is an unfortunate necessity but one that can also serve as an opportunity for resourcefulness and long-term change. Big companies like Gelmart International are looking for ways to make short-term changes that will also suit them well in the long term, and DTC brands, closing their stores, have a similar opportunity.
“The situation we’re in right now reorders your priorities,” Koehn said. “We had a yearly road map for our back end that we were working on to replicate our physical experience online, but now that has become more pressing than ever, so a lot of our focus now is on bringing our in-store styling experience online.”
In the few days since Buck Mason closed its stores, Allen Ford said online sales have been up 70%.
Koehn said the company’s online back end, which was custom-built in-house rather than created with the help of outside contractors, allowed it to quickly set up a system where stylists could speak with online customers over chat, offering similar style advice to customers that they would get in store. Prior, chat was used only for customer service and stylists were restricted to in-store interactions only. Buck Mason has no venture capital backing or private equity ownership, so it’s used to making quick decisions, said Koehn.
Vuori, an athletic apparel brand based in California, also shut down its five stores on Friday. CEO Joe Kudla said it was obviously the right thing to do, even though California hasn’t yet been hit as hard as other parts of the country. Instead, the company is taking the downtime while its more than 50 store employees are out of the store to implement better product training and tighten up all the little inefficiencies that have built up during booming economic times.
“We’re getting very buttoned-up,” Kudla said. “The things we’re working on — product training for our store employees, building better feedback pathways between store employees and the design team — they’re not very sexy, but they’re important things that can get neglected when you’re growing really fast.”
Kudla and the founders of Buck Mason all said that their companies are in a good financial position to weather the storm — Buck Mason did more than $50 million in sales last year and Vuori did $50 million as well, roughly doubling its revenue each year — but not every company can close their stores for an indeterminate amount of time and survive.
When Glossier announced it would be closing stores last week, CEO Emily Weiss said in a statement that she made the decision out of a desire to be a leader, not a follower, in retail and not wait until she was forced to close stores to make a decision. Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the Wharton Business School’s Patty and Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, said that the decisions brands make at this crucial time will have a long-term effect, not just on their businesses but on public perception of them.
“There’s a psychological concept called a flashbulb memory,” Kahn said. “People remember momentous occasions. ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ That sort of thing. I think the brands that handle this situation well, who do the right thing for their employees and customers and do it in a clever way — people will remember that for a long time.”