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Looking for every sale, retailers inject testosterone into holiday shopping

Malls and other businesses try to lure elusive guy shoppers with manly mainstays like booze and beef

By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

6:28 PM EST, December 18, 2011

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Matthew Waylett has put down his cocktail to adjust the tilt of an Indiana Jones-esque fedora, admiring his reflection in the mirror set up at the bar.

It's Men's Night Out at the Manor Tavern, and Waylett has been lured to the shopping event, not so much by the chance to buy as the promise of cigars, free-flowing bourbon and a steak dinner.

"You won't catch me dead in a mall," says the Monkton man, back in his own John Deere cap. "But when you bring whiskey into the equation …"

With its first Men's Night Out, the Baltimore County tavern joins what's looking like a nationwide experiment in testosterone-fueled retail this holiday season. Recently, merchants hoping for sales crowded into an Oregon brew pub better known for selling pale ale, a central Pennsylvania mall attempted to bait men with beer and onion rings and a group of Atlanta-area antiques merchants hoped beer with pizza would make their cash registers hum.

In the shopping industry, it's an accepted truth that The Average Man is allergic to malls and finds holiday browsing about as appealing as dental work. It's also an accepted fact that in this economy, every sale counts.

So if men won't go to the malls, the vendors are coming to them — either that or doing everything to make their shops as tavern-like and man-friendly as possible.

"If it wasn't for a strong Christmas and men coming in and purchasing from the certain places, like the jewelry stores, I'm not so sure they'd be in business," says Nancy Hafford, executive director at Towson Chamber of Commerce and planner of the shopping district's men's event for Dec. 22. "They tend to buy larger gifts, they just do."

To attract the swaggering, Grillo & Co. jewelers on Allegheny Avenue will be pitching an outdoor tent for men's night where guys can puff on stogies and quaff wine, lest the diamonds and pearls start to sap anyone's virility.

"They smoke cigars, drink wine and the next thing you know, they're coming out with rocks," says Hafford, laughing. "It's a nice male bonding kind of thing."

Manor Tavern advertised its first attempt at men's night by pointing to bourbon, single malts and — the piece de resistance — manly one-pound slabs of prime rib. If there was a salad included, the tavern kept that to themselves.

It all came with the $25 price of admission — that along with the chance to shop.

Bill Irvin, one of the tavern's owners, was shocked to have more than 100 men show up for the event — about 60 of whom reserved spots ahead of time. "And guys," he marveled, "are the worst at making reservations."

The night of the event, men milled about in a couple of the tavern's back rooms. Some wore sports coats, others came in ball caps and work shirts. Everyone, it seemed, quickly found their way to the table where the bourbon was being poured.

Before long the air took on the bouquet of a potent cocktail, guffaws increased a few decibels, faces reddened. And the shopping?

Let's just say it's hard to overstate the popularity of the booze table.

Wendy Black, there to sell her photo notecards, stood around looking bored. "This is not the venue for me," she said. "I need Ladies Night. Ladies buy cards." She added, "I don't know if it wasn't for the liquor, if anyone would still be here."

The woman across the room selling Pampered Chef checked her smart phone. A lot.

One man finally strolled over to Jennifer Barry's jewelry table and with Rolling Rock in hand, gave the shiny objects a quick perusal. Then he leaned in and whispered to Barry, "My wife needs jewelry like she needs a hole in the head."

Skip Lehmann, who drove in from York, Pa., for the event, was among the few to quickly get out his credit card. He had spotted just the thing for his beloved wife — an engraved bottle of bourbon.

And if she doesn't like it?

"To heck with her," he said. "I'll drink it."

Alas, Irvin had figured men, after a few drinks, would be in a buying mood. After all, it had happened to him once.

"When Nordstrom first opened, they had a party," he remembers. "There were cocktails on every floor. And after a few, I found myself buying my wife Chinese hair sticks. Who the hell would buy Chinese hair sticks? But after a couple Tanqueray and tonics, I was buying Chinese hair sticks."

Among the vendors who had set up at Men's Night with high hopes were merchants selling jewelry, handbags, hats and spices — all of them had merchandise spread out on tables for the men to consider, or not. A salesman with Ravens sportswear seemed to be doing pretty well. Someone with gift certificates for spa services cosmetic enhancements, significantly less so.

Even barrel-aged bravery couldn't embolden guys to approach the spa stand.

"I was over there and saw 'breast enhancement' and walked away fast," said a still-unnerved Bill Varnell of Glen Rock, Pa. "No way."

Varnell did buy some spices — a packet of the "flat iron steak rub." "My wife loves my cooking," he said.

It was a quiet night for Laurie Imhoff, who came from Catonsville to try to sell quilted purses and bags. She suspected what with the drinks and all their buddies around, the men were having trouble focusing.

"I can't imagine my husband ever going to something like this," she said. "I think it's a neat concept because they don't like going to malls. But I didn't have much expectations."

As Waylett sipped a Captain and Coke, he thought about calling his wife to ask whether he could buy the fedora. He also thought about buying the fedora, hiding it in the barn and then bringing it out a few months later, pretending he'd had it for years. A trick, it would seem, straight from Ladies Night.

As for shopping with the guys, he said it felt good, it felt right, it felt … familiar.

"It's just like a golf outing," he said with a shrug. "Without the golf."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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