Dressing Up in a Down Economy

For the past year, we have been bombarded with the big economic indicators: the Dow, oil and gas, health care, etc. We hear about the jobless market, but what about those in “recession proof” industries, those on the front line, forced to take it in stride and make decisions to do more with what they can control?
This control has always come from commission positions in sales.
For the past 10 years, I have been fortunate to work with two completely different markets, Tulsa and Tampa, Fla. I provide clothing consultation directly to customers in their homes or offices. Although our 45-year-old clothing company has weathered many recessions, this is my first with a developed clientele. During past downturns, only a few market segments suffered a decrease in business. The past year and a half, it has been a larger group.
Most people would honestly decide that, faced with cutting expenses, their clothier would be the first to go, at least for a while. One client recently told me he would be cutting his expenses 30 percent to adapt to the downturn and would postpone any new clothing additions. So, I asked him, “Why don’t we just do 30 percent less? Would I have to bear the entire cut?”
We had a good laugh and made plans to see each other down the road. If only I had been able to convince him that with every suit purchase the Dow would go up 100 points. It would have been a long shot, but who knows?
Is my business down a little? You bet. But here is the great news: People are dressing up again. I have the proof. Over the years, we have found that interesting things happen in recessions when people pull back and begin to think long and hard about value, usage and cost of clothing.
First, people are dressing up because it feels better. It’s a great mental boost. People spend thousands of dollars on cars they drive for two hours a day but invest little time and effort in their wardrobes. Think about that one special outfit you have and how it does wonders for your attitude when you put it on. This is the power of inner confidence affecting your outlook on everything. Let’s face it: When things are tough, paying attention to your mental game can be the difference between success and failure. You choose.
Second, people are dressing up out of necessity. The job market is a tough world these days, with successful individuals in every profession stepping up to show their value or highlight their edge over the competition. Finding new business is paramount, and paying attention to one’s appearance can make or break any critical business venture. New clients consistently tell me they have been thinking it is time to go back to the necktie. The reason: Business has always meant that you look sharp. Business casual is just that: casual.
Now, most of you are thinking I am suggesting people go out and drop a bombshell on their next clothing purchase and throw out those dusty suits that have been hibernating since the ‘80s. Not so. I am only suggesting that it has always been important to pay attention to your appearance and that this is not a short-term benefit.
Having been in Tulsa for the last five years, it is interesting, while attending my company’s national meetings, to compare wardrobe trends around the country as I visit with partners from New York and Florida to San Diego, and even Vancouver, British Columbia. The middle of the country was the last to switch to business casual, and some are still considering doing so. Meanwhile, the East and West coasts have been back to full business attire for an entire year. It has been my observation that we are three years behind the adjustment, and middle America will most likely be the last to suit back up.
By the way, did I mention my suit sales are up 37 percent year to date? Look out, Tulsa: It is already here.

Rogers Shaw is senior sales partner for Tom James.

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