In rough economy, Jos. A. Bank thrives

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Jason Bruns, left, of Baltimore asks the advice of Bob Morrison, right, about ties at the Jos. A. Bank store on Pratt Street. Morrison is the manager of the shirts and ties department at the store.

Most retailers struggled through the recession. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. thrived.

While other men's clothing chains were shutting stores and cutting costs in the face of shrinking profits, the Hampstead-based retailer was expanding and investing.

Jos. A. Bank opened new stores — 110 nationwide since 2008, bringing the total to 527 — broadened its product line, started outlet and tuxedo-rental businesses and announced plans recently to take its e-commerce site international.

Most important, throughout the downturn the company, which specializes in career wear for men, offered promotions and sharp marketing — at one point even offering to take back suits from men who had been laid off.

Now, as the economy sputters back to life and many retailers work to rebuild, analysts say Jos. A. Bank is ahead of the game.

Sales of men's apparel in the United States have been shaky, falling from $53.2 billion in 2009 to $51.3 billion a year later, according to the New York-based market research firm NPD Group. Sales climbed to $53.4 billion in April of this year.

The menswear industry already was challenged by long-term trends toward casual office attire when the economy fell into recession.

NPD has found that men stop shopping for themselves when times are hard.

"They'll only buy when they're forced to replenish," said Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief retail analyst. "They'll wear their boxer shorts until the elastic wears out and their socks until there are holes in" them.

Some of Jos. A. Bank's rivals struggled during the downturn. With so few men buying suits, Men's Wearhouse pivoted to offering aggressive promotions — including buy-one-get-one-free deals — for the first time in 36 years.

Earnings for Men's Wearhouse, which also owns K&G, plummeted 50 percent in the first quarter of 2009. At the time, analysts said the company couldn't compete with Jos. A. Bank and its big bargains.

Men's Wearhouse has since begun to see a rebound, with earnings of $67.7 million last year on sales of $2.1 billion.

Even in the darkest years of the downturn, Jos. A. Bank made money, its annual profit increasing 22 percent to $71.2 million in 2009, according to regulatory filings. Last year, sales increased another 21 percent to $85.8 million.

Analysts attribute much of the company's success to its deep discounts. Sales are offered so frequently — often, several times a week — that some shoppers joke they're not sure when there isn't some sort of promotion or sale going on.

"They're doing better because they have the most aggressive pricing that I've ever seen," said George Whalin, a California-based retail consultant. "They have these deals that run week after week after week."

"The sales are kind of ridiculous," said Kevin Horney, 24, as he picked up suits from the Jos A. Bank store in downtown Baltimore. "But in a good way."

Jos. A. Bank CEO R. Neal Black said bargains were the only way to attract cash-strapped shoppers during the recession.

"We offered pretty compelling values at a time when consumers needed it," Black said. "The consumer will let you know what he is willing to pay."

Jos. A. Bank's products fall into a category that Cohen calls "renaissance brands," or classic clothes of good quality. Polo Ralph Lauren, Guess and North Face are also in that category, he said.

"Men during challenging times don't necessarily go for the cheapest product," Cohen said. "They are looking for products that will last a long time. They want the best quality for the right price."

Retailers benefited during the downturn from a decline in manufacturing costs. With business weak, Black said, the overseas sewing houses were offering good prices. The cost of raw materials also declined during that period, he said.

Landlords with vacancies also meant good leasing deals for retailers, enabling Jos. A. Bank to open more stores and enter the outlet business.

"We were able to lower our costs and pass that on to the consumer," Black said.

Jos. A. Bank also gains from a lack of competition in its niche.

Men's Wearhouse is Bank's biggest rival, analysts said. Department stores have become less competitive, and stores such as Brooks Brothers attract a higher-end customer.

Jos. A. Bank has also kept up with changing times, selling more casual work wear as men wear fewer suits.

As the economy continues to improve, Black said, the company will have to watch costs. Prices of raw materials already have started to rise and the company has begun to increase some prices.

The process involves some experimentation: It turns out that men are willing to buy dress shirts at higher prices but not sportswear, prompting the retailer to lower some prices again.

Black also doesn't expect landlords to continue to be as lenient with rents.

The promotions didn't work as well in the first quarter of this year as they had in the past. Sales growth slowed as a result: Comparable-store sales increased 0.1 percent as men cut back on seasonal products.

"We let the customer tell us," Black said. "Right now so far this year we are having to continue to discount [in some areas]. The customer is not ready to pay more. When the economy gets better we will see."

The retailer also expects to reap the benefits of the new businesses it entered during the downturn. It tested a tuxedo rental business in a handful of stores in 2009 and then rolled it out in all stores last year. Black has said the company hopes to see profits from that venture, as well as from a new big-and-tall line it has launched in some stores.

Jos. A. Bank opened its first outlet store last year. It now has 15 around the country.

The men's clothier announced in May it is expanding its e-commerce site to more than 90 countries — its first foray into the international market. Black said selling online abroad will help the firm test the waters in foreign markets.

The company has used Internet sales in the United States to gauge domestic demand for its products in the United States and to help it decide where to open stores. Black said it will use a similar strategy to decide whether to open bricks-and-mortar shops in other countries.

Shoppers streamed in and out of Jos. A. Bank's downtown Baltimore location one day recently to pick up suits they had had tailored and to buy shirts for work, as well as gift cards.

Steve Banks, 50, has shopped at Jos. A. Bank for 18 years. He had just returned from vacation and was buying socks to wear to his job at T. Rowe Price.

He said he does most of his shopping for work clothes at Jos. A. Bank, which he likes for its prices and customer service.

Bruce Powell, 45, an attorney in Baltimore, said that he shops at Nordstrom and Brooks Brothers, but that Jos. A. Bank is also a favorite. He said the sales are enticing, but so is the quality of the suits.

"They have a very good price for a good product," he said.