Ethan Song, left, and Hicham Ratnani's Frank & Oak has 120,000 online members just seven months after launch. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

RETAIL

Hate to shop? Fashion site for guys takes off

The Globe and Mail

Ethan Song hates to shop.

“I'm the perfect target client,” he says. “I always like clothing and being fashionable and looking good, but I just never had the time to go and search for the right things.”

Mr. Song now has proof that he's not alone. Men like him have propelled the Montreal-based online clothing brand he co-founded, Frank & Oak, to overnight success.

Just seven months after its launch, the 27-person operation serves more than 120,000 members and is managing a waiting list for new customers while its supply chain catches up.

And it has made more waves outside Canada than here at home: 70 per cent of its sales come from the United States, where buzz has been building. The company plans to open a small, four- to five-person office in New York next spring to handle marketing and public relations.

The business is based on a simple idea: While many women see shopping as a fun social activity, men do not want to spend a Saturday afternoon browsing in stores with friends.

Frank & Oak is also designed for a younger demographic of men who are helping increase the readership of magazines such as GQ and men's style blogs – in other words, people who are aware of style but still do not have the patience and free time to seek it out.

It also serves those who don't have the budget for the designer items featured in the glossies; every item on the site costs less than $50. (The company keeps costs down because it acts as designer, manufacturer and retailer, selling directly to the consumer.)

With seed money from Montreal's Real Ventures, Frank & Oak launched in February and is forecasting that it will reach $6-million in sales by the end of its first year.

“One of the reasons we made the investment is that this was exclusively targeting males. If this was serving women, we probably would not have, because there are just so many places women can shop online today,” said Mark MacLeod, a partner at Real Ventures.

Men are where the money is. The $23.3-billion apparel industry in Canada has grown only about 1 per cent year over year, but that growth has been entirely driven by men, said Kathy Perrotta, director of fashion at research firm NPD Group Inc.

At BeyondtheRack.com, men still represent only 12 per cent of revenue, but that's growing quickly. Men's sales have jumped 60 per cent in the past year, and customer data shows that men spend 22 per cent more per visit, on average. In brick-and-mortar stores, the guys investing in their wardrobes are ages 35 to 54, according to NDP, but men are also spending more on clothes online, and those shoppers are in their 20s – Frank & Oak's exact demographic.

“For the online shoppers in the millennial segment [late teens and 20-somethings] there is a new man, more likely to buy for himself and more likely to focus on his appearance overall,” Ms. Perrotta said. “Those younger shoppers are going online because they want everything online. That's a function of being a millennial. You want everything at your fingertips.”

But Mr. Song believes most online retailers have been going about this wrong.

“One of the things I find a lot of e-commerce sites have not exploited well is that the Web is a visual medium,” he said. “People are willing to pay to get access to magazines. The content itself has value.”

Frank & Oak's collection is presented in the style of a monthly magazine, with each batch of clothes refreshed month to month. While ease of search is the holy grail for most online businesses, Frank & Oak is impossible to search, opting instead for a “curated” feel.

Just how curated depends on the level of membership. Casual shoppers who browse and buy an item at a time receive e-mails following their purchase with “new styles for you” selected by the site's “curators” to encourage repeat visits.

It also has a subscription program called Hunt Club. Membership is free, but users commit to receiving a box in the mail every month with three items to try on. They pay only for what they keep. (Shipping for this monthly package is free, and the company covers shipping costs on returns for both Hunt Club and regular members.) To help in selecting those items, the site provides customized recommendations based on each user's purchase history, demographics and an extensive questionnaire.

That's part of a growing trend in e-commerce. Not only are there more clothing sites for men – such as Gilt Groupe's launch of its Gilt MAN store and subsequent launch last year of separate men's Web store Park & Bond – but many of them are working on a subscription model, such as with the launch of Bespoke Post last year and Trunk Club in 2009.

“I've sent back a few things, but I usually buy at least one thing,” said Dave Senior, a partner at digital marketing agency Playground Inc. in Toronto. He found out about the service through social media, where shoppers give the brand free advertising relatively frequently. “Things like that are inherently shareable. ... Because it's so affordable it's pretty easy to recommend.”

Everything about Frank & Oak's site is designed to simplify the retail experience for men, Mr. Song said.

He and co-founder Hicham Ratnani started out with a site called Modasuite, which also offered made-to-measure shirts. One stumbling block was the fit: Customers, who may never have picked up a measuring tape, had to either awkwardly string one around their own chests or ask for help. Visitors often abandoned the site when it came to that step.

Frank & Oak, by contrast, fits customers by asking for their height and weight, body type (“slim”, “average,” “athletic” or “well fed”) and a comparison of a mainstream brand that fits them best (such as Banana Republic or Hugo Boss).

“There's more and more men's fashion coming online ... but you have to make it easy for them,” Real Ventures' Mr. MacLeod said.

Ms. Perrotta of NPD agrees that e-commerce sites have to market very differently to the male shopper.

“Men not liking to shop is absolutely accurate. I don't think they mirror women in terms of doing it for enjoyment, relaxation or sport,” she said. “But they are more style-conscious.”