Woog's World: Mitchells throws out a lifeline
Published 1:04 am, Friday, February 12, 2010
In 2010, when Bill Mitchell looks west he sees Westport circa 1958.
Mitchell and his brother Jack are the sons of Ed and Norma Mitchell, who 52 years ago embarked on second careers by opening a small men's clothing store not far from downtown.
Mitchells of Westport is now in its third Post Road East location. It's unfathomably larger, and far higher-end. There's a women's department, designer collection, jewelry -- it's the height of upscale in a very top-end town.
But -- just like in 1958 -- Mitchells still has free coffee, all the time.
It's as human-oriented as it was when Norma did alterations herself. And it's that customer service focus that Bill, Jack and the ever-expanding Mitchell family hope to bring to their newest acquisition, Wilkes Bashford of California.
A Bay Area icon for more than four decades, Wilkes Bashford -- like Mitchells, family-owned and operated -- went into ignominious bankruptcy last year.
Two of its four locations closed. With the clock winding down on the remaining two stores, Mitchells -- now called Mitchells/Richards/Marshs, after the acquisitions of Greenwich and Long Island clothiers -- rode to the rescue. Suddenly, Mitchells went bicoastal.
The decision to buy the troubled retailer was not easy. But it gained traction when Tyler Mitchell -- Bill's 30-year-old son -- volunteered to head west, and help bring Wilkes Bashford back from the dead.
"The staff there is terrific," Bill said in his always optimistic way.
"But spirits were down. Our job was to help them get everyone to what they had done so well, for so long." Bill called Wilkes Bashford "a great opportunity. It's one of the few family-owned retailers left in the United States with a culture of going beyond customers' expectations. But they'd taken their eye off the ball. They forgot that the customer is the emperor and empress."
Just before Thanksgiving, Tyler left his Compo Cove home for an apartment two blocks from Wilkes Bashford's Union Square store. (The second location is in Palo Alto.) Bill's brother Jack, and Jack's son Andrew, spend half their time in California now. But Tyler -- who still buys all men's furnishings and accessories for Mitchells' five stores -- runs the show.
Bill knows it won't be easy. "It's like where we were in 1958," he emphasized. Wilkes Bashford had no new merchandise for a year and a half, no system to tell which customer was buying what. "It was like when my mom and dad started with two suits, four blazers and six pairs of underwear. They're in the middle of San Francisco, near Saks, Neiman and Bergdorf, but they needed refurbishing. It reminded me of our first store, when we took over from Dixon Heating and Plumbing."
Tyler, Jack and Andrew are bringing the Mitchells' mantra to Wilkes Bashford. That means, Bill said, "not just answering a question about where the women's department is, but walking the customer to the elevator -- and riding with them to the fourth floor." It means coaching each associate on the Mitchells way --then giving them the tools and the power to operate using individual strengths and styles.
Bill finds it hard to believe Wilkes Bashford "took its eye off the ball." He picks a high-profile customer: former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. "They had no way to track what he was buying, what he needed, when his birthday is, what his kids' names are. They weren't thinking, `Hey, Valentine's Day is coming up. Let's give him a suggestion about what his girlfriend might like.'" In fact, Wilkes Bashford never had a computer system until Mitchells installed one.
"We're in a small town here, and they're in a big city," Bill said, referring to Westport and San Francisco. "But people everywhere love a personal phone call when a new pair of shoes comes in." The Mitchells -- young and old -- are excited about the potential of Wilkes Bashford, and what they can do for the venerable California stores.
"I made a major push to come out here," Tyler noted. "When I worked for Brioni for three years, I did all Wilkes Bashford's trunk shows. It was the heyday of their business. People lined up to buy $6,000 suits. I saw the heartbeat here, and then I saw it dwindle. I knew their employees, I knew their customer following and their reputation.
"But they focused only on the art of the business -- what was beautiful -- not on the art and the science. We're more numbers driven, without losing sight of the customers. We flow merchandise in throughout the year because people want to experience new things all the time, not just once or twice. We step on the gas when we've got a product that works, and step off it when it doesn't. We analyze what works and what doesn't. That's what we can bring to these stores."
Tyler's biggest challenge, he said, is "trying to get it all done. My uncle and cousin are doing a lot when they're here, but I open and close the stores. I host the vendors. I'm getting involved in the community.
We've got two stores here an hour apart. I feel I need to be involved in everything at both places, because I know our system well." He is proud that he has earned the trust of the California stores' associates, but understands there is more work to do.
"The problem with retail is timeliness," Tyler said. "I'm buying merchandise now to deliver next September. Customers want to know, `What are you doing to help the store?' I can't say, `Wait nine months and you'll see.' But I know we have to be patient. That was true with our other two purchases (Richards and Marshs), and it's true here too." Tyler expects to be in San Francisco at least three years. So far, he has made the transition from Westport easily. "I love it here," he said. "When the dust settles, I really want to enjoy things like the biking, Napa and Tahoe."
Tyler's father is not moving to the West Coast -- though he enjoys visiting the new stores. When he's there, he is pleased to see his son carrying on the tradition started by his own father and mother.
"For a couple of years, Wilkes Bashford was worried about how they'd keep the doors open," Bill said. "Now they're open, and we can concentrate on bringing customers back through them. At 67, my juices are all revved up."