Retail landmark gearing up for busy days

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Published: November 22,2004

When Billy Neville opened The Rogue 37 years ago, there were 31 men’s specialty stores in Jackson.
Now there are two. And he’s standing tall.

In retail circles, the Jackson clothier has been called a survivor, one of America’s best specialty shops, and Neville has been dubbed the unofficial “dean of merchants.” The Rogue represents the largest single independent specialty store account in the nation for selling upscale Zanella’s men’s trousers from Italy. The 3,000 LaCoste shirts he stocked for the season weren’t enough to keep up with demand. And he’s turned The Rogue into a brand name and now travels the country helping other stores position their business and stay ahead of the curve.

The Mississippi Business Journal asked Neville, owner of The Rogue & Good Company, about changes to his store since the first Rogue catalog hit mailboxes in 1967, featuring nifty line drawings on craft paper, the retail specialty business in general and how he has weathered economic downturns.

Mississippi Business Journal: To what do you attribute not only surviving, but also thriving, in your trade?

Billy Neville: We’ve tried to change with the business before the business has changed and to be receptive to our customers’ wants and needs. We’ve tried to stay close to our customers, to have a very personal, intimate relationship with them. Customers these days have too many choices not to be treated any way except very special.

We feel that every product in our store has to have some kind of very personal, emotional feel to it, an attachment, if you will. That’s why everything is hand-selected to be the best, to be unique, and has a story behind it. We can’t be everything to everybody. But we can be special to some few who know and appreciate what we do. We’ve grown the business over a period of time by being able to do that.

There will always be a place for men’s specialty stores in this country, but you’re not going to see an abundance of them. You’re just going to see a small number that narrowly focuses on customers, and does it better than anyone else.

MBJ: The Rogue is known primarily as a traditional haberdashery, but it is much more than that. Can you expound?

BN: We’re traditional, and then we aren’t. You can certainly buy red stripe ties and khaki pants and denim shirts and all of the above, but we’re a lot more than that now. We still hang a lot of clothing, which has become unusual these days because men in general just don’t dress like they did at one point in time.

We sell a lot of clothing at all ends of the spectrum. We’ve had the reputation of being a very high-end store and we still carry very high-end clothes. Our most popular trouser is the Italian Zanella brand, $295 to $400 pairs of pants. But I also sell a lot of pants at $85 and $125. We allow customers to eat out of both sides of the trough, to try something new, a little different, by understanding the edge without going over the edge.

MBJ: What adjustments have you made to your original business plan?

BN: The model for independent business is simply broken. The numbers are all skewed now. There are lots of expenses that small business owners never thought they’d have. Who thought health insurance would be as high as it is?

People love to shop at the store, but this is not a self-service store. We found that our customers are willing to pay a fair price, but not necessarily an exorbitant price, to get good service, to go to a place where they get the best alterations at no charge. You could only imagine what I must have to pay a tailor, and I have six of them! That’s just one example. Another is that we do premium gift-wrap while you wait. It’s little touches that make us who we are, and we’re not going to change. We find that we’ve got to be the best at what we do, still serve our customers well, and continue to make a profit. I love this business, but I’m not doing it for fun.

MBJ: Didn’t you say recently that something like $100 million in men’s clothing is sold annually within a five-mile radius of Highland Village?

BN: That’s true. We’re in an affluent area.

MBJ: What is your marketing area for the store?

BN: Within 150 miles or so. On any given day, we’ll mail 50 to 60 parcels out of town, from Natchez to the Delta to Tupelo. As small town America has dried up, people have come to cities like Jackson for destination shopping.

MBJ: Why do you think that clothes from The Rogue are in such demand?

BN: Everything is selected with a Rogue point of view. We don’t sell fashion. We sell style. And there’s a gulf of a difference between the two. Clothing from the Rogue is timeless. It’s like an old friend that gets better with age. It doesn’t go out with style, though it might get pushed to the back of the closet. You’ll bring it out with a smile when you do.

MBJ: What’s the importance of dressing smart?

BN: There’s a great saying that good clothes open all doors, and they truly do. If you think the way you look isn’t important, have you ever seen a successful man look like a slob? There are no second chances for good first impressions. If you look the part, you’re going to get it. It’s tried and true.

Serious times call for serious clothing. Men have two to three wardrobes these days, including dressy and dress down. Just make sure you have the appropriate clothing for the appropriate occasion.

MBJ: Any advice about wardrobe building?

BN: It’s so important to build a wardrobe and you need a partner when you do that. You can buy body covering anywhere. Good clothing needs to come from a specialty store, from someone you trust and have developed a relationship with, that knows you, knows what’s in your wardrobe and will do a wardrobe consultation. Someone who isn’t afraid to say, ‘that looks awful on you, let’s get rid of it,’ or ‘I don’t care how long you’ve had this, it looks good on you, keep wearing it.’ A wardrobe consultant doesn’t tell you to throw everything out of your closet. He tells you to shop smart and that’s the most important thing anyone can do.

Add a few pieces to your wardrobe every season so that you’re not starting from scratch and you’ll be able to mix and match shirts and ties and sports coats and suits. It makes so much sense in this day and time to make your dollar go further, to pay a little more but for it to last longer. There’s another old saying that’s one of my favorites: ‘the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’

MBJ: Several years ago, you changed the store name from The Rogue to The Rogue & Good Company. How did the name change come about?

BN: I called it The Rogue to begin with, which was a knockoff of Villager clothes. I thought that was kinda neat. Years later, I was in New York and saw a cookware store, Wolfman, Gold & Good Company. That’s when I added Good Company. Later, I heard one of my vendors say, ‘Mr. Neville must be in really bad trouble because he took in Mr. Good as his partner.’ I realized I’d totally missed the mark! But it’s a good story. I feel like everyone who shops here is in good company.

MBJ: Tell us about your holiday offerings and why you believe specialty retailers will enjoy a prosperous holiday season.

BN: It’s going to be an incredible holiday. I’m so excited about it. We generally do as much as 35% of our business in the last six weeks of the year so we’re loaded for bear. There’s a big retro feel going on. The biggest is that LaCoste shirts are back. We’ve gone from selling 300 to 3,000 in one season. I can’t keep them in.

Cashmere is just incredible this year, but you have to buy from someone you respect because a cashmere sweater or pullover can cost from $45 to $450. You want one that’s handcrafted, with great construction because cashmeres have a bad tendency to stretch, seams in shoulders and fully fashioned, made with pure Inner Mongolian cashmere and soft, plush yarn, something that won’t pill.
We’re selling the old American standard barn jacket, in beautiful leathers, with reversible suede/leather styles.

Great sportswear from Tommy Bahama, still the big new name, is popular. Gant shirts have been rebirthed. They’ve been around forever but are proving they’re not your grandfather’s Gant any more. Beautiful leather accessories — valets, lamps and file boxes, for example — are big this season.

Some great Christmas books are out, including “The Best of the Holidays,” a look at mid-last century in food, traditions and advertising. Another, “Christmas Stories of Mississippi,” continues to sell very well.

We have a set of genuine Harris Tweed luggage from the Outer Hebrides that’s just gorgeous. Pricey? Absolutely. You can find a wonderful gift at The Rogue for $25 or this set of luggage for $2,500, but they each make a special statement about you, the recipient and the style that’s uniquely ours. We truly believe it will be our best year.

MBJ: How soon will you begin planning next year’s holiday season?

BN: I’ll start working on 2005 four days after Christmas, after I get a little breather.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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