10/16/2006

How to let men enjoy shopping

Is the game on too?

Boutiques aim to let men enjoy shopping

A pool table. A keg of beer. Wireless Xbox. Vintage Playboy magazine pinups on the wall.

It sounds like the quintessential bachelor pad, but these are the wares accessorizing a new just-for-men boutique in Wicker Park.

Called TK Men, the North Avenue store sells exclusive Italian lines on racks filled with fashionable industrial-colored clothes, from T-shirts to dress shirts. Owner Lindsay McKay helps men accessorize and said she never lets a client buy unflattering attire.

"It dawned on me that there's a niche here," McKay said of opening a store for men this summer. "I've gotten a feel for what sort of voids there are."

One gaping hole is that there are few stores that cater to men, many of whom are averse to shopping, by creating a comfortable environment for them.

Several similar boutiques, often marketed as "lifestyle centers," are popping up in Chicago and elsewhere in the country to tap into an increase in retail shopping power among men. Department stores and chain stores are paying closer attention to male customers, and last year Conde Naste launched Men's Vogue magazine.

"There's a greater recognition that men are viable consumers in their own right. The old mantra that men would bring home money, and women would spend it, is going away. [You see ads] that get men thinking about how they think about themselves," said David Urban, a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Frank Mazza, a 31-year-old Chicago hairstylist who visits TK about twice a month, is among those who appreciate an increase in shopping choices.

"I'm a boutique type of guy. I don't like going into a bar and seeing a guy with the same outfit," he said.

Toward that end, McKay knows Mazza's name and size and is helping him customize a leather jacket.

At Guise, on North Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, the front of the boutique is a hair salon. In the back Guise sells sports jackets, jeans, underwear and grooming products. Men can get manicures at a bar. Flat-screen televisions pepper the store. Posters of James Dean and Steve McQueen serve as backdrop. Indie rock on a computerized jukebox reverberates in the shop.

And don't forget the free beer.

"I didn't think people were selling the right way to men," said owner Brad Habansky, who opened Guise 18 months ago. "They weren't showing them how to put [outfits] together."

By the time men get a haircut with panache, they might be ready to invest in a wardrobe upgrade, with recommendations from Habansky.

Lee Peterson of WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio, which helps retailers in store designs, said traditional shopping environments such as malls are heavily feminized and can turn off male shoppers. Men don't like to be barraged by sales clerks, he said. Visual simplicity is also more effective; bold graphics, simple displays and wide aisles are crucial.

"Marketing to men is so much different than marketing to women. Woman goes to mall and woman has plan of mall," Peterson said. Men do not.

He said looking at population by age helps decipher shopping trends. Baby Boomers and men under 30 are both big spenders, but younger male shoppers are charmed by a store's aesthetics.New York-based WSL Strategic Retail says it has learned from research that men under the age of 34 shop more like women: They browse and buy items they didn't have in mind, unlike older men who are destination shoppers.

Barry Seifer, principal at CubellisMarco Retail Design in Northville, Mich., said the catchy boutiques for men harkens back to a time 50 years ago.

"These are not new trends, but they're reinventions of older businesses," Seifer said. Made-to-measure suits, hats and clothiers were popular from the late 19th through mid-20th Centuries.

"Men's status was equated with custom-made clothes," he said. "Now in the age of mass production of the post-war era, those brands able to mass produce clothing became ascendant." He tells clients they no longer drive the brand bus.

Veteran store owner Gus Isacson is wary of retail gimmicks. Twelve years ago he opened Shirts on Sheffield and sells only six of every shirt. There are 300 different shirts, a rainbow of warm and chrome colors. Several years ago he tried offering beer to patrons but eventually nixed the idea.

"Customers don't have time. They want to come in, measure a shirt and learn how to tie a knot," Isacson said. "You drink in a bar, shop in a store."

He said Shirts on Sheffield offers individuality and thick hangers.

Others agree that beer is imagery and question whether video games and magazines will lure customers.

Delia Passi, author of "Winning the Toughest Customer: The Essential Guide to Selling to Women," said women must feel good about a purchase, while men are more goal oriented and don't meander in malls.

"Men do not like to linger in the [shopping] process," Passi said.

She added that serving beer won't necessarily translate into buying. Men need coaxing and matching ensembles put together for them.

The inspiration for Dion Antic to open Him, located on North Damen Avenue, was to offer quality clothes similar to items offered in the country's coastal cities. The store looks like an entertainment room, with a foosball table, beer and oversize leather chairs. Him opened last year.

"I wanted to make shopping a little more entertaining. If you're paying $150 for a pair of jeans, you want to enjoy it," Antic said.

"Men needed more options," he said. "Most men need someone to guide them but not be pushy."

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