Workin' It, With Style
Article written by Katherine Bowers. Original article appeared in DNR News on March 28, 2005.
Work 'N Gear revamps product mix, store design to create new upscale image
Dedham, Mass.—Anthony DiPaolo looks the part of a workwear retail chief executive officer—no-nonsense denim shirt, jeans—but his funky Prada frames hint at a design savvy rarely found among shovels and steel-toed boots.
DiPaolo is bringing that same pairing of function enlivened by a dash of style to his fledgling retail chain, Work ‘N Gear.
His goal is to expand the 66-unit concept, based in Weymouth, Mass., into the first national workwear specialty chain. If he succeeds, he’ll have created a new, upscale channel for workwear, a $12 billion market dominated by discount giants Wal-Mart and Kmart.
DiPaolo purchased Work ‘N Gear for $10 million in 2001 from Casual Male Retail Group during the latter’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. It will be his second major attempt at reinvigorating a company. His first acquisition was Herman Survivor Shoes, which he bought from Stride Rite Corp. and sold to Wal-Mart in 2000.
Now, DiPaolo wants to steer “as far away from the big-box discounters as possible,” he says. “You have two choices: Try to be like them, compete on price—and lose. Or you can differentiate yourself in product and [store] experience.”
He is taking the latter route, moving Work ‘N Gear away from pricate label to focus on premium workwear brands such as Carhartt, Timberland Pro and Riggs, a sub-brand from Wrangler.
DiPaolo has also hired Dayton, Ohio-based Design Forum to revamp a dated corporate logo and redesign the stores.
The result, as evidence by the 5,700-square-foot Dedham, Mass., flagship, is a store that looks more like fashion “want” rather than functional “need.”
There are piles of cargo shorts, T-shirts in spring colors including neon, and a 10-foot-high poster with the caption “N Style.”
“You have to show the product in a flattering manner,” DiPaolo said during a recent tour of the store, which will serve as a prototype for the 20 new units slated to open this year. “You can’t line up standards like soldiers with no music or atmosphere.”
DiPaolo won’t reveal current sales volume (revenues were $50 million when he bought the chain in 2002), but says sales at redesigned stores are running 40 to 60 percent ahead of the previous year. Company revenues grew 15 percent in 2004.
Men’s wear accounts for 60 percent of sales; footwear and women’s apparel (predominately medical scrubs) yield 20 percent apiece. DiPaolo is planning to open 20 stores a year for the next two years, with an ultimate goal of achieving a 300-store operation.
Bill Chidely, chief creative office at Design Forum, explains the design firm’s challenge was to “give the merchandise permission t be used outside of the workplace, to be bought more for emotional rather than rational reasons.”
In response, the design team added color, used simulated woods on fixtures and floors, and built three dressing room “towers” that double as billboards for large lifestyle images.
“I love the images,” DiPaolo says. “They tell a quick story to the consumer.”
But DiPaolo sees room for fine-tuning. The floor, an attractive yin-yang swirlf of simulated dark and light wood, is showing the dirt tracked in on consumers’ boots.
Despite the fashionable veneer, the merchandise remains authentic. There are massive Carhartt coveralls, chefs’ jackets, medical scrubs, mechanics-style button-fronts and plenty of pocketed polo shirts ready for custom embroidery. The Riggs jeans come with Cordura facings and a leather-reinforced “tape measure” pocket. Corporate orders are a fast-growing business for Work ‘N Gear, which counts General Motors among its clients. The company is increasingly catering to weekend warriors with lifestyle lines such as Woolrich, Helly Hansen and Gramicci.
With the move to brands has come higher average-ticket sales and, DiPaolo contends, better customer loyalty.
“I am not bashful about selling high-priced items,” he states. “When I took over we were selling six pairs of socks for $9. Now, I am selling one [Smartwool branded] pair for $20. And I sell a lot of them.”