- Boyds is an upscale department store in downtown Philadelphia that has been run by the same family since 1938.
- The store, which has a team of 39 in-house tailors and pressers, is one of the last of its kind in the United States . Many department-store chains, including Sears, Macy’s, and JCPenney, are closing locations across the country as they struggle to adapt to shoppers’ changing habits.
- We visited the store as it was in the midst of a $US10 million renovation that will completely redo the menswear departments and promote womenswear as a main area of growth.
Walk into Boyds, and you may feel like you’ve been transported back to the mid-twentieth century, when shopping in department stores was the most glamorous way you could spend an afternoon. There’s a feeling of extravagance and exclusivity and an element of theatre.
In the store’s nooks, you’ll find immaculately dressed sales assistants measuring up male customers for tailored suits, then dashing between floors to help women customers shop for a complete look – or even an entire wardrobe of clothes.
It’s instantly apparent that this store is in a league of its own, upholding a level of customer service that was largely abandoned by mainstream department stores decades ago.
One of the reasons for this is that Boyds has stayed in the same family for the past 80 years.It was founded in 1938, when brothers Alexander, Albert, and Ben Gushner emigrated from Russia to pursue the American dream.
The three brothers started out sellingcigarettes, cigars, and dress shirts. Alexander was at the helm of the business serving as its president, Albert its vice president, and Ben its treasurer. Over the years, Boyds evolved to become one of the most highly regarded menswear shops along the East Coast, and their bread and butter was tailoring.
In all of this time, its name never changed, and it only moved locations once before landing in its current home, the former Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It’s a building so iconic that it could only be suitable for a store of this kind.
Today, it’s run by Kent and Alex Gushner, third- and fourth-generation descendants, respectively, of founder Alexander.
28-year-old Alex Gushner is 30 minutes late to our interview. He arrives apologetic, explaining that he was held up while fitting a client for a suit. Both father and son have a hands-on role in the business, and they employ some 36 sales associates and personal stylists, some of whom have stayed at Boyds for several decades.
This father-and-son duo are now tasked with prepping the store for a new age of retail, to bolster themselves from the threat of e-commerce as other legacy department-store chains such as Macy’s and JCPenney close locations across the country.
For Boyds, it’s a delicate dance between maintaining the old-school, high-touch approach to customer service that is so ingrained in its culture – and that sets it apart from its competitors – while ensuring that it isn’t stuck in the past.
To do so, Kent Gushner, 58, has launched a $US10 million renovation plan for the store, which is well underway. This will be the store’s first major overhaul since it moved locations in 1990. While these changes will equip the store with the modern space it needs to make it relevant in the future, Kent is adamant that the survivors of brick-and-mortar retail will be those who can offer customers an experience and a service.
“There is nothing I am thinking or feeling today that hasn’t been a part of our mentality since I have been in the business. It’s just that it’s more pressing today than it was before,” Kent Gushner said. “When we talk about service, experience, and personal relationships, those are the touchpoints that are we are putting more and more focus on in our business model.”
He added: “It has to evolve to provide people with things that go far beyond just a product … To provide things that the online operators can’t provide.
To kick off the renovations, the Gushners have moved womenswear to be front and center in the store, and they got rid of the iconic marble staircase that once occupied a large portion of the first-floor space. They replaced it with a set of steps that are decidedly more modern and low-key.
“It says to our existing clients: this is a new day,” Alex Gushner said as he led us through the store.
Exceptional customer service
The old-school shopping experience at Boyds begins when you park your car. Across the road from the store is a large, private parking lot that’s reserved exclusively for Boyds customers.
“The lot is critical to our business,” Alex Gushner said.
“The valet parkers have worked for my father since I was born, and they know many of our clients on a first-name basis,” he said, adding that this is part of why the family has repeatedly resisted urges to sell the space for redevelopment.
The Gushners say this is part of what sets Boyds apart from other stores and allows it to compete with the convenience of e-commerce shopping.
“If you really want a product that we sell you can get it elsewhere,” Alex Gushner said. “But the things you can’t find elsewhere are the services and experiences that we provide – that we will need to sharpen in order to remain relevant.”
Once you’re in the store, the uncluttered shopping space and curated selection of clothing instantly remind you that this is an upscale environment.
But it’s the sales assistants, or the people they refer to as “personal shoppers,” that really drive home the exclusivity of shopping here. These associates will go above and beyond to facilitate the shopping experience. Every time a sale is made, they follow up with a handwritten note, and they contact clients when new items they feel might be suitable for them come into the store. The idea is to create a relationship that lasts a lifetime.
Deborah Soss, who was recently brought on as the head of women’s buying at Boyds after spending 20 years at Bergdorf Goodman, said she was “completely blown away” when she first visited the store.
“It’s an incredible environment – the smiles and warmth are incredibly special, and they have never gotten rid of that,” she said.
The engine of the store
The backbone of Boyds’ business is still its men’s tailoring department. This section of the store, which currently occupies the second floor, is brimming with row upon row of pristine, expensive jackets and trousers.
Customers can be fitted in-store. Any necessary alterations are made by a 39-person team of in-house tailors and pressers, who take up the entire fifth-floor space of the store. It’s the largest in-house tailoring team of any store in the US, according to Kent Gushner.
There is no additional charge to the customer to use these services, but they cost the company around $US2 million a year in employee wages, taxes, and benefits.
This area of the store is out of bounds to shoppers, but the Gushners allow us a peek inside. We see tailors whirring away on sewing machines, and at the back of the space, clothing is being steamed and pressed before being sent to clients.
“You can’t get these services and experiences elsewhere,” Alex Gushner said. “It’s a personal touch that is hard to find at big-box competitors, and it’s the engine of our store.”
Adapting to new times
The $US10 million renovation, Kent Gushner’s brainchild, has been in the works for three years. The catalyst behind these renovations is the chance to grow its womenswear department, which currently makes up only 21% of the store’s overall revenue. The family sees it as a big opportunity for growth.
The removal of the imposing marble staircase and carpeting of the marble floor is meant to symbolise that Boyds is approaching a new era. The hope is that new women customers will be encouraged to walk into this less imposing space.
It also meant that the store gained 1,600 square feet of space and was able to make the first-floor mezzanine area visible to shoppers from the downstairs area. It was previously blocked by the staircase.
The next step is to modernise the menswear department on the second and third floors. Men’s tailoring will be moved up to the third floor, and men’s luxury sportswear and casual clothing will take over the second-floor space – a wink towards the increasing casualization of men’s clothing.
Despite these changes, Kent Gushner is insistent that the store will not depart from what it is best known for.
“The overriding thing of what Boyds means to people is the dressier part, the tailored part, the professional part of the men’s market,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that aspect of our business as that is still the bread and butter for us, but we want to alter people’s perception of what Boyds means to them.”
Fending off the threat of e-commerce
Boyds didn’t have an online store until October 2017, and working out how to launch one was chief among Kent Gushner’s concerns.
“I didn’t want to destroy the culture of the people that were working here by starting a competing division,” he said. “Our remedy was to not compete with the sales people, but to make the sales people that work in the brick-and-mortar store part of the online equation.”
If an existing customer chooses to shop online, they are asked to select a sales associate to assist during the ordering process. This is to connect existing customers with sales assistants they already know. If they don’t select one, they are randomly assigned to a Boyds salesperson.
“We are trying to bring any elements of what makes us successful as a brick-and-mortar store to the online experience – the opposite to what the online people are doing,” Kent Gushner said.
The sales associates will ensure the item is packaged and shipped to the client and will follow up the characteristic handwritten note to make sure the client is happy with it.
“We try and create some kind of sales connection with you and that salesperson. Whether you continue to buy online or do come in the store, you now have a point of contact in the store,” Kent Gushner said.
But perhaps most crucially, it keeps employees motivated. He described this as one of the biggest shortcomings of Boyds’ brick-and-mortar rivals.
“How would you feel if you were working in that store, and your old company was competing with you, and you don’t get any of the sales of commission from those sales? Yet if there is a problem, the customer returns them to the store and you are responsible for handling a return or a problem that you never get the credit for selling in the first place. That can’t be good for one’s morale,” he said.
In his opinion, this is one of the biggest shortcomings of Boyds’ competitors, as they have cannibalised in-store sales by focusing on their online platforms, therefore making it unpleasant for sales associates working in stores.
“The effect of their online business and even their own online business is just sucking business out of the brick-and-mortar store,” he said, though he did not point to any store specifically.
Boyds has some major advantages over some of its competitors – not the least of which is that it doesn’t have a flock of stores to worry about and that it is a private company. Plus, it stocks a limited selection of high-end clothing that is targeted towards a specific set of consumers.
Despite this, the management team is clearly aware that it needs to adapt to the times to succeed.
“Everything is a risk,” Kent Gushner said. “But I think it is a bigger risk not to do anything.”
“It circles back to this whole idea of making the experience for people – experience is not going to be captivating for people if they walk in and it is just new lights and new paints.”
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