Retailer of the Week
11 Jun. 2014
Jason Somerfeld, owner, Letter J, New York City, USA
Letter J is a brand new men’s multibrand boutique that opened on the far west side of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood ten weeks ago. It’s owner, Jason Somerfeld, has extensive executive retail experience at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and the recently shuttered discount chain Loehmann’s but this is his first solo retail venture. Located in the heart of Manhattan’s art-gallery scene, the newborn shop already has attracted a loyal clientele. Here, Somerfeld discusses his store’s unique concept and brand mix and explains why setting up shop on an otherwise fashion-free block has been a wise decision. Interview by Christopher Blomquist
What is the concept of Letter J?
It is definitely something very new for New York City. It is a relaxed, casual, sophisticated environment and what we do is we have a lot of exclusive brands for New York like Ambsn, Freedom Artists, which is currently in the window, Boy London and Thieves. We are the only men’s store in New York to carry these brands. We work really hard on getting exclusive brands as well as brands that are not widely distributed around New York City like Orlebar Brown, LimoLand and Hartford.
Letter J houses a lot of exclusive brands for New York
For the fall we have more elevated brands coming in like Etro, Band of Outsiders, Z Zegna and Lucien Pellat Finet. We really wanted to open in the spring with a more relaxed feel and then for fall we will be more dressed up. People think we are very LA right now and we are and even in the fall we’ll do a New York/LA version where we will be more elevated and we’ll take like a blazer and put it with a very relaxed pant and a T-shirt and really make it very, very casual and but always very sophisticated. People come in here and always say, “It’s so casual but so chic and we love it.”
What is the price range in the store?
We really carry all price points.
Right now we have great T-shirts that start out at $35 and then we go up to great leather jackets that are over $1,000. We have pants that are $250 and we have pants that are $50.
What is your bestselling item at the moment?
The best item right now is the jogger pant. New York is in a very casual cycle right now and people want clothes that are non-denim and that are casual for the pant that look relaxed but that you can still wear a blazer with. That’s why we think the timing of what we did is very good.
And what are your bestselling brands?
There are a lot of them right now. We are doing very well with Aviator Nation, Hartford, Mason’s, Closed and Freedom Artists. We have reordered and sold out of all of them. We’ve probably turned over product a couple of times with each of those brands.
Who is your customer base?
People really respect and appreciate what we do and a lot of our business comes from the locals. It comes from the gallery guys–a lot of Europeans and South Americans–who shop the galleries and a lot of people from Chelsea Piers [a sports and entertainment complex one block away]. People come in from Chelsea Piers and they are not only the guys that workout or play hockey. It is also a lot of the parents who drop their kids off at parties and recreation there. They come in and shop while their kids are at Chelsea Piers. Then we get a lot of people who take their dogs to the [nearby] dog run or their kids to the children’s park. It’s very, very random. And in the fall when we start our PR and we have our more elevated brands I think it is just going to hit a whole other plateau.
Impressions from the store
For men to shop in Chelsea there is definitely nothing like this. And for cool, casual relaxed clothing there are people that do it but we try again to have our own point of view and to put things together like we do in our windows. For example, we really believe in color and contrasting something that could be formal with something that could be very casual and giving people that diversity and sophistication.
What has been your favorite moment of running the store thus far?
It’s hard to say a moment but it’s the consistency of excitement that customers get when they walk in the door. And they tell me: “Oh my God, this place is dope!” So many people come in and say that and they get on the phone and they are text messaging and they are Instagraming. When people come in and react in that positive way or when they come in and ask, “When did you open? I don’t have time to shop but I will be back.” And then they DO come back–with their friends, with their family, with their husbands…. And they come back and they spend. I would say that’s the most rewarding part of it. It’s not a dollar amount sale. We have people who spend a lot of money in here and we have kids who really pull up on their skateboards and some of them come back with their parents to pay for their purchase. It’s really the acceptance and the excitement of doing something so original in a multibrand that is authentic for New York City.
How do you stay in touch with your customers?
We have a very sophisticated database, a POS point of system, and when they make a purchase we take their address if we ever want to do a mailing, we take their e-mail and we have phone numbers. We do a lot of special orders now for customers. I have a customer leaving for Switzerland tomorrow and she came in and wanted these men’s shirts that come in all these colors but she said, “I need yellow.” So we special ordered a yellow one for her.
Letter J shop window
It’s a men’s store but we also get a lot of women shopping here. They ask if we have any women’s merchandise and we say, “We buy extra smalls for women.” We have a lot of women buying T-shirts, sweatpants and knits. I would say that 20% of our business is to women.
So might you expand the offering to actual womenswear one day?
I don’t think we are going to add women’s in this store but I would do a women’s version of Letter J on the block in another location. I think that might be something we would definitely do very soon because we wanted to do men’s and usually people do it the other way around. But I think we gotta get a year under our belt being a pioneer in this area. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
What have you learned about retail in the ten weeks that the store has been open that you didn’t know before?
I underestimated the power of word of mouth. If you do something people will come. And what I learned from a real estate perspective is that a lot of people were reluctant about my location being the only store on 23rd Street around here and not being next to other stores or not being on Ninth Ave., or Eight Ave. or in SoHo. If you do something that is unique, special and different people come. I went with my instincts and people that I really trust believed in it and we took a risk. In this city people like to discover something new, especially if you do something that is a little off the beaten track. That’s part of the uniqueness of Letter J. You don’t have to follow the sheep. You can really stand on your own ground, be something unique and people respect you. That’s what I learned and I really appreciate those two things. They were pleasant surprises!
557 W. 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
+1 212 366 4452
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