Karl McKeever Column - February 2018

Men: an endangered retail species?

Masculinity in crisis. Toxic masculinity. Increasingly, the rhetoric surrounding men is shifting, and none too subtly. The all-powerful, alpha male subtext is no longer dominant. Instead, commentators everywhere – both male and female, across the whole media spectrum – are changing the focus, asking new questions and demanding different, and better answers.

This new tone is spanning politics, TV, Hollywood and journalism. In the US, Trump, Allen, Weinstein and Spacey are continuing to leave a lasting – and negative – legacy. Closer to home, equal pay rows at the BBC and the fall-out from the President’s Club headlines have turned established concepts on their head. While some men have been rightly tamed and shamed, the wider male population may be forgiven for feeling vulnerable and scared to comment or speak out for fear of being shot down.

Masculinity is truly under an uncomfortable spotlight. And the reality is, this is no different in retail. While the march to entice the female pound continues apace, the truth is that male shoppers are poorly served by most high street retailers. Many ‘traditional’ men’s stores are becoming more female focused, with brands such as Halfords, B&Q and Richer Sounds increasingly seeking to attract more female shoppers. Meanwhile, men must be content with the rather tired concession made by womenswear retailers of a comfy seat outside the changing rooms.

Today, men’s clothing is frequently an apparent afterthought, a ‘tag on’ to womenswear in brands such as River Island and H&M, with no retail experience that specifically caters for their needs. As a result, men literally have nowhere to go. That is, unless they want highly formal wear, jeans, dedicated sportswear – or to resign themselves to shopping at M&S, George, Tu and F&F.

Across the pond, it’s much the same story, although there are a few more specific retailers for men, such as Men’s Warehouse and Johnstone & Murphy.

So why are men being so fundamentally neglected? Especially given – in an ironic truth of unequal pay – that men often have higher levels of disposable income. There is money to be made. Why don’t retailers want to make it? In the current environment, retailers are struggling to increase sales and profit, so tapping into a lucrative market like this would make perfect strategic sense.

Is it a case of equality gone too far in the other direction, ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need to avoid discrimination accusations?

Should retailers and men be ashamed of wanting or offering this type of experience? Why not offer ‘hangout’ spaces where men can hang out in tribes and do ‘men’s stuff’ to win the male pound? Exclusive, private and masculine with no women allowed. Or more realistically, should there be a balanced middle ground? One that is glaringly absent at the moment.

There’s a whole industry out there devoted to the ‘metropolitan’ man, with designer stores and fancy trappings, swanky new floors in Harrods and Harvey Nichols catering for the savvy, moisturised and bronzed guys. Beard salons, barbers, whisky bars, craft breweries and private members’ clubs are all rife – but their appeal is undeniably limited.

Online retailers follow a similar path. For a fat monthly fee, the enlightened online man can enjoy styling, grooming, butler and concierge services. Here, like a remote dating app or your Graze Box, you tap in your preferences and a neatly packed ‘new you’ will be sent out for you to slip into in the comfort of your home.

But what is there for the average, middle-aged man/dad? For those looking for a new jacket or some different shoes, these offerings are nothing short of overkill. Desperate men are scouring the high streets to find something they can relate to, away from the dizzying world of the androgynous millennial branding. It’s an era of discontent for these male shoppers who retailers are seemingly happy to ignore.

When will these men stand up and say: ‘Why aren’t we being served?’

Personally, I think sooner rather than later. A few years ago, Moss Bros introduced a men-only mainstream lifestyle chain called Code. Modelled on the ‘next for men’ concept which was often in standalone stores, it struck a more ‘men’s only’ environment for shoppers. Would this business have fared better in this more fashion conscious and fashion confident time for men? For me, there is undoubtedly money to be made for retailers and brands that can get the right mix, and surely it won’t be long before savvy retailers really wake up to this. The ever-insightful John Lewis has already introduced personal shoppers for men into eight more of its stores after an initial trial proved popular. Experience, service and product – it’s not such a difficult concept. And Next has recently announced plans to integrate a car showroom and barber’s shop inside its Manchester Arndale store – a bold and intriguing step for a brand not renowned for its audacity.

The world of the all-powerful male is well and truly over. We’re welcoming in a new era of equality, and masculinity in crisis would perhaps be better phrased as masculinity in flux. Being reimagined and rebooted.

But only the most foolhardy retailer will ignore the value of the stalwart and steady male pound. What do men want? Perhaps more tellingly, what don’t they want? It’s time for retailers to create their own rhetoric, stepping out of the shadows of fear and becoming a beacon for other industries to emulate. One of integrity and equality... for all.

 

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