2016 was a big year for men's retailer Combatant Gentlemen. The Irvine, California-based company, which considers itself a tech-first, fashion-second brand, started selling online, direct-to-consumers in 2012 but recently forayed into brick-and-mortar. In the first quarter of last year, the brand hosted its first pop-up shop at Nordstrom and soon after opened a stand-alone location in Los Angeles. And at the close of 2016, the company signed a deal with Bloomingdale's.
FierceRetail spoke with Vishaal Melwani, CEO of Combatant Gentlemen, to hear about the company's successful holiday season and garner some tips for retail omnichannel expansion in 2017.
FierceRetail: E-commerce is obviously still growing. What does this mean for retailers in 2017?
Vishaal Melwani: E-commerce is definitely on the rise. While it was once just the runner up, e-commerce is now head-to-head with—if not ahead of—the offline space. That said, offline has never been more relevant.
We’re seeing a surge in what modern-day retail looks like, and that comes down to the comprehensive experience for the customer both on and offline. Brands now have to come to life, tell a story, offer value and resonate with the shopper. Not only that, but consumers want to be a part of their favorite brands’ stories. Savvy retailers understand this trend and are increasingly incorporating consumer preference and feedback with every brand decision.
For us [Combatant Gentlemen], this means that our in-store stylists are more than just sales associates – they are the first touchpoint to our entire retail operation and customer experience. It’s important to understand how to service each customer on a personal level and relay that information back to online channels. The fashion and retail industries will continue seeing this intertwined omnichannel trend through 2017.
FR: Beyond in-store stylists, what other customer experience and personalization tactics are you using to drive customer loyalty?
VM: Combatant Gentlemen is an online-first company, so fostering loyalty through the digital space is very important for us. Suits are our bread and butter, but we offer the entire gamut—we want to be that one-stop shop.
Our vertical collections, including luggage and shoes, complement those wardrobe essentials, so our customers can rely on consistent quality across the board. We also create lifestyle content online—everything from tips on how to style chinos to the best credit cards to have in your wallet—to help guys navigate their lives. Being an important resource entices customers to return, and keeps us accountable as a brand to create better products and experiences both online and in-store.
FR: What did you learn about your customers during the holiday shopping season and how will you apply this knowledge in 2017?
VM: Millennial shoppers appreciate the story behind the company. We find that providing the reasoning and story behind our products is much more successful than having holiday discounts alone. Creating a meaningful connection with customers, especially during a time when inboxes are flooded with sale promotions, really goes a long way.
FR: With holiday shopping starting earlier than ever in 2016, how did this affect how you reached out to consumers during the two-month period?
VM: We consistently experience spikes during the holidays, but we don’t rely on that end-of-year push. As a direct-to-consumer company, we do not operate seasonally, and this plays a big role in our strategy leading up to the holiday season. Instead, we leverage steady product launches year-round to remain consistent.
FR: How important was your brick-and-mortar this holiday season and how did it play into what was happening online?
VM: Physical stores still account for the vast majority of retail sales, and a sizable percentage of brick-and-mortar shoppers still do their homework first online. This means that store visitors may try on a new suit only to make the purchase from their couch later that evening after some additional thought. As a tailored brand, Combatant Gentlemen wants to foster a seamless experience between our online and offline stores.
The start of the year is the best time for retailers with physical stores to assess their market, as we’re hit with such an array of data points throughout November and December. There is no better time to survey clientele, old and new, and exceed set goals and expectations.
FR: How do holiday sales set the stage for 2017?
VM: Holiday should always set the stage for the coming year. November and December alone offer so much data into the customer mindset, and many retailers see a huge spike in new customers as well.
Combatant Gentlemen uses this time to better understand our customer and entire company, setting the stage for the months ahead. Retailers should ask themselves the following questions:
• What’s trending?
• Did we see a significant return on a particular marketing campaign?
• How did our fulfillment center perform?
• How can we grow more efficiently, and further?
FR: Looking ahead, what role do you predict mobile will play in digital transactions this year?
VM: Mobile will continue to soar in 2017—it offers a fresh and frictionless way for retailers to convert customers without having them go through the traditional route of purchase. Retailers are increasingly creating mobile applications because today’s consumer is more apt to adopt new platforms and technologies. However, brands shouldn’t offer the same experience on mobile as they do on desktop. Mobile is a blank canvas—a new way to offer an effortless, more convenient platform—and retailers are beginning to see the value in that.
FR: What are some of Combatant Gentlemen's mobile plans for 2017?
VM: Mobile has been increasing month over month for us. We hope to continue providing unique experiences for our customers, with offerings such as location-based events and content, and exclusive offers for app users. We also plan to launch an Android app within the next year.
FR: Will Combatant Gentlemen be tapping into any new growing demographics in 2017?
VM: We’ve seen a lot more men that are accustomed to purchasing more expensive suits but find our products have the same, if not better, quality for a fraction of the cost—these new customers are generally older than our typical demographic. Having offline channels have played a big role in this increase; touching and feeling product really goes a long way.
FR: What advice do you have for other retailers trying to reach a wide range of consumers?
VM: The bigger the problem you can solve, the wider demographic you can cater to. We’re in the business of helping men who want quality attire from a company with a strong message. Our core customer is the millennial guy, but we’re tapping into the entire male demographic, regardless of age. We are using data to look at trends and understand our current and potential customer base. This, in turn, helps us execute the right data-driven strategies and solve new problems, whether that means improving our shopping experience to be more convenient and accessible or creating lifestyle content that resonates with a wider range of consumers.
FR: What do you see as being the biggest retail challenge in 2017?
VM: Leveraging data that matters, and finding the sweet spot between key data and human connection. At the end of the day, customers are people, and nothing beats insight via human connection.