Thursday, November 19, 2009

"An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer" - Sy Syms

Sy Syms was a pioneer of off-price designer labels whose fame rested on folksy commercials that belied his talents as a merchandiser.

Mr. Syms, who died Nov. 17 at age 83, is remembered by many New York men as the source for their first suits, and by television viewers of both sexes as the star of late-night ads featuring Mr. Syms proclaiming, "An educated consumer is our best customer."


Sy Syms, shown in 2008, died Nov. 17 at age 83.

Originally a seller of bargain men's clothing and haberdashery in the Wall Street area, Mr. Syms later opened stores in suburban malls. He offered designer-label clothes at discounts he claimed were 30% to 50% and more off retail prices.

Mr. Syms's monotone gave few clues to his background as a broadcaster. Ultimately, Mr. Syms joined the pantheon of other do-it-yourselfer admen in the New York area, such as Tom Carvel in the ice-cream business and Victor Potamkin, an auto dealer. Mr. Syms was savvy enough to set up his own ad agency to ensure that he got the agency discount when he bought airtime.

"He had the ability to be a merchant, a promoter and a financier all at the same time," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment banking firm. "He is the first guy to offer discount designer suits on a major scale."

Born Seymour Merinsky in Brooklyn, Mr. Syms was the son of Russian immigrants who started out in the collars and cuffs business. He served in the Army during World War II, studied broadcasting at New York University on the G.I. Bill, and worked as a radio broadcaster for a few years in the late 1940s, calling minor league baseball games.

In 1950, Mr. Syms joined his brother's clothing store, "Merns," near Manhattan's financial district. In 1959, he left to open his own store, called "Sy Merns," and was forced in a legal dispute to use a different name, according to an account provided by the company. He chose "Sy Syms," and opened on Cortlandt Street, near his brother's store and a few blocks from Wall Street.

"It was his joy to be on the selling floor from 12 noon to 2 o'clock," says Marcy Syms, Sy's daughter and now chief executive of the company. "That's when the traders and bankers and lawyers would come in." Today, salespeople are still called "educators," she says, which follows his habit. "He loved to explain the clothes."

The Cortlandt Street store made headlines when U.S. Steel Corp. wanted to eject Syms to make way for construction of a skyscraper in 1967. With months still remaining on his lease, Mr. Syms refused to budge and told The Wall Street Journal it would take "a minimum of $100,000" to get him to move. He soon moved for a much smaller sum.

Mr. Syms's shop on Cortlandt Street was adjacent to the Hudson Tubes. There, trains ran to New Jersey, where an estimated 90% of his customers lived. In 1971, he opened his largest store ever in Paramus, N.J., and began more aggressively moving into marked-down brand-name suits. He also added women's wear.

To support his expansion plans, Mr. Syms started advertising on the radio, reading the scripts himself. The first television ad came in 1974, and it was Mr. Syms who took credit for the trademark "educated consumer" phrase. It replaced an earlier slogan, "Unbelievable Syms!"

As his business expanded, Mr. Syms cut deals with big European labels such as Armani and Brioni to buy their excess production, and would then sell it at something close to wholesale.

In the early days, Syms clerks would snip the designer label out of the suit before handing it over to customers. Stores were kept spartan, with black walls and plain racks weighed down with huge amounts of merchandise.

The formula worked, and Syms expanded in the 1970s and went public in 1983. Ms. Syms succeeded her father as CEO in 1998. This year, Ms. Syms led Syms Corp. in the takeover of retailer Filene's Basement. Altogether, Syms now operates 52 stores.

One fan was New York Mayor Edward Koch, who has shopped at Syms since the 1960s. "I just bought two jackets there," Mr. Koch said in an interview. "They're both big bargains."

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