We are fast approaching the ten year anniversary of the end of Britches as a retail institution in the Washington, DC area. I am constantly amazed by how many people miss the store, and wish they still had Britches as a shopping option. Of course, had all these people actually shopped at Britches instead of just thinking about it, the chain would still be in business. I will try not to let that lingering bitterness cloud my writing.
I get asked about Britches quite a bit, since I did work there from 1987 until 2000 (with a short 18 month sabbatical in the cellular business). I should be an expert on all things Britches, including the story of its demise. I hated talking about the end of Britches for a long time. I took it personally when someone would look at me in an accusatory manner, and sigh aloud with a touch of blame, “That was a great store.” I felt this was the person’s way of saying to me, “If you had only suggested one more Schnitt, if you had accessorized those Big Mitch shorts with a woven belt (2 for $5, or 4 for $10!), if only you had fully stocked the front two-way display with the proper size run of teal Columbia Whirlybirds (with zip out, reversible down jacket), Britches might still be around today.” My dreams were haunted by window display dust bunnies that frightened away would-be shoppers and a shortage of Merry Britches large shopping bags the Saturday before Christmas. For the record, it wasn’t my fault. I, like many of my loyalist Britches friends, tried our best. Forgive us, darn it, as I have forgiven myself finally, and now I can tell the tale.
To this day, I get the question, “What ever happened to Britches?” Here is a summation of my stock answer. In the future, I will refer all questioners directly to this blog post to save time and breath. I encourage my former BGO and BGT colleagues to add their own theories to this post.
The Price Spiral: Once you start playing the mark down game, it becomes a death spiral, and Britches started playing the mark down game in the 1990s. As we all know, price is only an obstacle in the absence of value. Britches offered a tremendous value in its clothing, but got scared during 1990s economic downturns. They used too many sale gimmicks (twofers and buy one, get one), and trained the loyal customer base to wait until the prices went down. We employees were trained in the axiom that cheaper price usually meant cheaper quality; however, once the markdowns started coming in the front door, that axiom was out the window, and the customers waited us out.
Over-Expansion: In the late 1980s, Britches added a women’s division for both the casual and dress genres (Britches Great Outdoors for Women – WBGO, and Britches for Women – BFW). In hindsight, womens wear should have remained as part of the mix in the existing locations instead of locking into expensive, long-term lease in area malls. We could have saved on labor costs, too, but I digress.
Around 1992, Britches began an aggressive expansion that saw men’s Great Outdoors’ store locations pop up in states far flung from the DC market, places such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Total store count peaked at 127 across three divisions (men’s outdoors, men’s suits, and the fledgling outlet chain). Instead of establishing a strong presence in a few markets, Britches tried to establish a small presence in a lot of markets, and in the process, lost their unique culture.
Maybe if Gene Kilway hadn’t fallen asleep during all those real estate meetings…just kidding, Gene, if you’re out there.
Competition: During the true heyday of the Britches casual division in the mid-1980s, think about the competition that did not exist at that time – J. Crew was a catalog business, Abercrombie didn’t appear until the 1990s; American Eagle had a reputation for low end merchandise; Aeropostale didn’t exist; Banana Republic sold army surplus clothing. Manufacturers didn’t have their own brick and mortar locations, like Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger do now. They had to sell to stores like Britches to move their goods. Once that started to change, Britches didn’t keep up. For awhile, it was the only game in town; by 1995, you could buy a rugby shirt in 20 different stores, and no one seemed to care that our rugbys had rubber buttons.
Casual Friday: When it came to suits and business attire, Britches of Georgetowne was the gold standard. Like the Outdoors division, it had no real competition at its peak beyond Raleighs and area department stores. Joseph A. Banks hadn’t come along at that point. The suit division was too slow to pivot to meet the clothing needs of the new workforce that no longer needed 10 Nick Hilton suits and 15 Joseph Abboud ties. The stores were allowed to remain stuffy and tired, with their dark woods, brass railings, dim lighting and suspender-snapping sales team. Customer intimidation by sales team arrogance is not a recipe for revenue growth.
Ownership: Rick Hinden and David Pensky sold Britches to CML in the 1980s, and there were the obvious pressures as a publicly traded entity to increase revenue and expand the company. I am not certain that would have happened had Britches remained privately held. The real death blow was the sale in approximately 1998 to Paul Davril, a wholesale distributor based in California. I was never close enough to the books to know for sure, but it sure seemed to me that the absentee owners (we saw them twice a year) were more interested in a tax write off and an outlet for the goods they could not sell themselves. The company’s heart was removed, and that was reflected in the cheap clothes that filled the outlet stores.
Impatience: Richard Fulwood, hired from Limited Express as Director of Stores in the mid 90s, had the ship on the correct course, yet they pulled the plug when sales did not turn fast enough. He helped update the look and feel of the stores and the staff in one short year, but he wasn’t the clothing buyer. He couldn’t be blamed for the buckle-back khaki pants or the vertical stripe Henley sweaters (or Scott Warren affectionately called it, the “swenley”). The impatience with the sales turnaround left Fulwood on the outside looking in, and the company never really improved from that point forward.
That’s my take anyway, and I am sure that many former employees or shoppers will have their own opinion(s) on what happened to a once powerful brand in the DC market. Many of you BGO alums most certainly will blame the Meadowday backpack “lifetime guarantee”, and just as many will argue that the shark was jumped once the Warthog was released with the tail up. There are a number of villains among the merchandise selection over the years, but I hesitate to blame one over another.
Perhaps the real reason resides in my closet today. I still have a pair of Montgomery pants that looks good, isn’t worn out, and fits. Why keep shopping at Britches every season if it’s “Clothing for Life”? I mean, besides the need for fresh, undented cans of chili…
RIP BGO/BGT 1967-2002 from Employee #06906-2