July 8, 2014, 11:50 AM

Why a high-end shirtmaker born on the web is betting on bricks and mortar

Born on the web, Blank Label is getting about half of its sales from its first bricks-and-mortar store, and plans to open more. It’s one of several brands that got their start online now finding success by offering hands-on, personalized service in physical stores..

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Foot traffic to physical stores is down across much of the country; e-commerce continues to grow by double-digit percentages while store sales falter and major department stores like Sears Holdings Corp. and Best Buy Co. are shutting down stores in droves in favor of investing more in their web channel.

But not Blank Label.

Founded in late 2009, the retailer sells high-end custom shirts for men. And until about a year ago, the merchant sold only online.

Blank Label opened its first physical location in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood about a year ago, and since then sales from the location have grown to represent around half of total revenue for the retailer, says CEO Fan Bi.

That portion is expected to grow quite a bit, as Blank Label opened its second location in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood last week, and plans to open six more along the East Coast this year.

Blank Label is following in the footsteps of other brands like men’s apparel maker Bonobos and eyewear retailer Warby Parker that started out selling only on the web, but have since gone on to open physical locations. Just this week, Bonobos announced $55 million in new funding to expand from 10 to 40 physical stores by 2016. 

For Blank Label, what has made these bricks-and-mortar locations, called pattern shops, so successful in driving sales, Bi says, is the personalized service and luxury shopping experience that its high-end buyers appreciate. Each individual appointment lasts 45 minutes to an hour, and sales reps ask shoppers detailed questions about their style and existing wardrobe.

Shoppers are measured, and they can touch and feel different fabrics. Consumers can order chino pants, shirts and suits at the pattern shops and the retailer ships the merchandise to customers. No inventory is stocked in the pattern shops to help keep overhead low, Bi says. On the retailer’s e-commerce site, only custom shirts are available.

The retailer serves customers cocktails and espresso, and furnishes the locations—each around 1,000 square feet—with Mad Men-style décor. “It’s like a speakeasy for menswear,” Bi says. “If you’re going to take the time to go somewhere, it has to be very experiential.”

The focus on creating a cool experience for its male shoppers has paid off, as Bi says only one or two consumers out of the couple thousand that have come into a pattern shop in the last year have left without buying something.

Blank Label does not disclose its revenue figures, but says the retailer is shipping around 1,500 to 2,000 garments per month and bringing in double the sales it was six to nine months ago. The merchant employs 22 people, up from eight or nine last year.

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