Tailoring Directly to Their Customers
Catalog established: 1980
Headquarters: Charleston, S.C.
# of employees: 35 (full- & part-time)
Merchandise: Men’s neckwear, shirts, eyewear, shoes, slacks, jackets, some women’s apparel
Customer demographics: Professional men, 45-plus, who prefer traditional clothing
# of SKUs: 5,000-plus
WHAT GOT YOU HERE: Both Sue, the company’s president and daughter of Ben Silver, and Robert, managing director, earned law degrees and spent time working as attorneys. Prior to taking over the family business following Ben’s death, they worked together in the wholesale jewelry business. “We found that the items we were selling weren’t being promoted in a meaningful way,” Sue recalls of the wholesale jewelry business. So when she and Robert took the reins at Ben Silver in 1980, they decided to sell direct.
“We didn’t know anything about the catalog business per se, but we did know a little bit about how to market,” Sue recalls. “So we rented lists and it became a mail order business.” In the early ’80s, the catalog strictly sold jewelry. Over time, the couple capitalized on the market for other high-end products, particularly neckwear and other men’s apparel items.
BIGGEST INITIAL CHALLENGE: Presenting their products effectively. Before the Prenners took over the company, Ben Silver was a wholesale business that sold “jewelry-quality” blazer buttons and a few jewelry products. By starting the catalog, Bob and Sue had to locate customers and market directly to them.
HOW THEY OVERCAME THAT CHALLENGE: Leveraging the existing customers they had from the wholesale jewelry business with their new catalog offering. “We were able to add product to the catalog and offer it to those who were already buying at retail,” Bob says.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE THIS YEAR: Working with the cataloger’s suppliers. Recently, vendors haven’t been meeting their standards. To help alleviate this problem, Bob and Sue take a very hands-on approach in picking the colors, designs and fabrics, etc., of all the clothing they select for the catalog. “We spend time in mills, looking at weaves and fabrics,” Sue explains. Earlier preparation has helped to alleviate some of the vendor problems, allowing the Prenners enough time to change and adjust before placing products into the catalog.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: A hands-on approach and a commited staff. “With us, it has to do with the fact that we’re very hands-on in every aspect of the business,” Sue says. “We style everything ourselves and create all our own patterns. If we won’t wear it, we don’t want to sell it.” Their dedication wears off on the Ben Silver staff, many of whom have been with the company for 15 years or more.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE; SUBSEQUENT RECOVERY: In 2003 and 2004, the company mailed a women’s and children’s catalog spin-off. The catalog failed to generate sufficient revenue, and the Prenners discontinued it. “It was beautiful and seemed a natural extension of where we were going,” Sue says, “but it wasn’t the right way for us to go. We haven’t eliminated women’s products from our main catalog, however.” In fact, the company operates a women’s store across the street from the traditional Ben Silver store in Charleston, S.C. The catalog also contains a large women’s apparel section. «
For the complete interview, visit CatalogSuccess.com and look for Profile of Success (Complete Interview): A Chat With Sue & Robert Prenner.