CLEARWATER — As president and CEO of Patchington clothing stores, Michael Levich must love hearing statistics that roughly 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day.
More seniors means more business for his chain of 23 stores catering to fashion-focused women in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Levich bought the Clearwater-based business in 2003 when it was in bankruptcy. While it enjoyed a loyal following, its average customer was well into retirement — a huge challenge even in the land of early-bird specials. Levich knew he had to inject some youth.
Founded in 1969 as C C's Patchwork, the chain flourished in the 1980s and '90s but stalled in 2000 as its customer base shrunk and wasn't replenished with younger shoppers. As the new owner, Levich reduced the number of stores from 50 across the Sunbelt states to 15, all of them in Florida. Then he got back to the basics: customer service and quality products for its affluent, fashionable audience.
A decade later, the chain has gradually added new stores and plans to open a few more in the upcoming years. And while sales have been mostly flat since the recession, it hopes a rebranding of its logo will help shed Patchington's image as a place where my mother shopped.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Levich, 62, spoke about what the older woman wants in apparel and why having stores in major malls doesn't work for every business.
What were your main goals coming into the company?
There were things we were known for, and one of them was great customer experience. Everyone in retail today says they have good customer experience, but we were truly committed to it by knowing the customer's name, being honest to that customer, going way beyond the call of duty.
You also can't survive without having the appropriate product for your customer base. Our customers' average age at the time was 72, and everything in the store was polyester, when polyester wasn't a good word. Everything was elastic waistband. There was no casual. We created lifestyles and introduced cottons and cotton blends. We added a lot more fashion and tried desperately to retain this existing customer who was loyal and understood us and tried to capture new customers. Over the past 10 years we have. We've gone from an average age of 72 years old to the 50s and 60s, and we've held on to the older customer.
Your stores are mostly in shopping centers. Why aren't you located in malls?
From a customer point of view, most of our stores are destinations. Customers want a shopping experience, like in St. Armands Circle (in Sarasota). You go there for half a day, you have lunch, you walk around the stores, you're outside. It's a real social engagement. The mall is not that. No. 2, there's parking in front of our stores. At the mall, there's not. And No. 3, from a financial point of view, the malls don't work for us because our customers don't shop in the evenings.
How have baby boomers' tastes changed?
They've always been fashionable and are going to gravitate to the current color and current silhouette. It just can't be as extreme. We're going to have a V-neck, it's just not going to be as revealing. If I go back 20 or 30 years ago, the evolution of fashion took at least three years. We all traveled to Europe, bought samples, sent them over to Asia and interpreted them. It took a while. Today, it's overnight. Everything is quicker. As we get older, we want to stay more with it in fashion. If you go back six years, all these missy, sportswear companies throughout the malls, the Chico's, Talbots and Ann Taylor, they hit a wall. There wasn't enough new.
How's your online business doing, given that older customers seem less likely to buy online than younger people?
We launched the online business about four years ago and we realized at that point, it was going to be a slow start. Today (our online business) is the size of a small store. It's growing nicely and we're putting more energy into it. Industry-wide, most people will say they want their online presence to be around 10 percent of business. We've got a ways to go, but we are growing. Two years ago, we grew about 50 percent. Last year we grew a little over 20 percent.
How does the shopping experience of an older woman differ from a younger woman's?
It's more a social experience because they have more time. They are often shopping with their best friend, sister or daughter. You don't have those 40 minutes you're stealing away to run into a mall and get what you need for the next event. It's a little more of a fun experience. Plus, they are often trying things out that they often wouldn't try. They are going in and trying on a dress they typically wouldn't because one of our sales associates say we just got this in and it's really the perfect item for you.
You mentioned elastic waistbands. Women don't want them anymore?
Well, it's actually come full circle. (Laughs) What has happened is the No. 1 pant is literally an elastic waistband, but it's so different than the one I'm talking about from 20 to 30 years ago. It's a high waist and wide on top of a really trim skinny pant. It's flat against your stomach so you can wear sheer tops and/or bigger tops over it.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110.