BP Skinner Clothiers’ quiet entrance into Columbia’s high-end menswear marketplace offers a new groove in a challenging niche for locally owned men’s apparel stores in the Capital City.
Those kinds of businesses have had a bumpy ride.
In 2000, no fewer than 16 specialty men’s stores populated downtown Columbia. That number dwindled to two by 2011 – Granger Owings and Brittons.
The reasons are simple: It’s a tough market and stores must offer a shopping experience that sets them apart, said University of South Carolina retailing professor Sallie Hook Boggs.
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“Small retailers cannot compete with large ones, and vice versa,” said Boggs, who has taught retailing at USC for more than 20 years. “They need to know their customer and be able to meet his or her needs in a way that no other competitor can.”
Experts say upscale clothing is about the only remaining market for locally owned apparel stores in most medium to small cities.
The closing nearly a decade ago of Lourie’s, a Main Street fixture that also offered women’s attire, marked the death of a nearly century-old family owned business. Even after consolidating its satellite stores back downtown, Lourie’s could not sell at prices that competed with chains such as Dillard’s, Belk or Mens Wearhouse, family members have said.
“That was probably one of the last great independently owned men’s and women’s clothing stores in the market,” said Rob Lapin, an NAIA commercial broker who knows the Columbia retail market well. Lapin sold the Lourie’s building that later was renovated for regional chain Mast General.
The checkered list of men’s clothiers includes Weathers, which opened in 1987, then changed ownership of its Devine Street location before closing in 2012. Financial pressures of the men’s clothier business contributed to its demise.
Brittons, another Devine Street store, transitioned from traditional men’s fashions to include tuxedo rentals and moved into upscale threads for college students and young professionals. Brittons also once had more than one store.
Granger Owings Classic Clothiers, is the only high-end men’s retailer that remains on Main Street after 38 years. It, too, has diversified and spun off a store, Circa 1332, for its second-generation customers who crave a more casual look. That store opened about two years ago across from Granger Owings.
BP Skinner opened in the fall in the first block of Gervais Street in the Vista. It reflects a business plan that seems to be taken from Boggs’ USC courses.
Customers will be welcomed by an attendant, a tape measure, and an offering of fabrics from which to select their tailor-made apparel.
“We don’t hang suits for people to come in and buy, alter it and send it out,” said Tom Blackburn, a store associate. “We make suits. That’s our purpose, our specialty. There’s just so much more attention that goes into a custom-made garment. The garment is built to fit the person.”
A custom suit from Skinner’s ranges from $895 to averages of $4,000 to $6,000, Blackburn said. Some have gone out the door with price tags of $10,000 to $11,000. Skinner’s also makes pants and shirts.
Store representatives will travel to customers, even those who lives elsewhere in South Carolina, Blackburn said.
“That’s very different,” USC’s Boggs said of Skinner’s niche in the city’s marketplace. “It raises the bar.”
Blackburn is no stranger to shoppers in the Midlands after 45 years in retail. He first worked for decades at Brittons, Lourie’s, then later Granger Owings.
Blackburn and new store owner Brent Skinner worked together at Granger Owings. Skinner, a USC graduate, has been in business in Columbia and Augusta, Ga., for 15 years.
“We do not feel like we’re new kids on the block,” Blackburn said. “But we do feel like we are bringing a whole new opportunity, concept (and way) of doing business.”
Lapin, the commercial broker, said Brent Skinner began honing his clientele by selling athletic-fit fashion here. “He’s created a niche and he’s marketed himself very well,” Lapin said. “I think that’s the key to his success.”