By Sam Prickett
The Gus Mayer brand is no stranger to tumult.
Founded in New Orleans in 1900, the department store at one point operated 20 stores throughout the Southeast and Midwest. Its Birmingham store opened nearly a century ago, in 1922, moving several times — from 5th Avenue North to Highland Avenue to Brookwood Village.
But a retail downturn in the 1970s led to the once-national company selling off its stores individually. Its current owners, the Pizitz family, bought the Birmingham location in 1975 and later purchased the Nashville store in 1990.
The two Pizitz-owned stores are the only Gus Mayer locations still open. The Birmingham store moved to a 16,000-square-foot location at the Summit in 2011, which marked a further evolution for the Gus Mayer brand.
“The store at the Summit is comprised of a large women’s area, shoes, jewelry, cosmetic and furs,” said Jeff Pizitz, president of the Pizitz Management Group. “We’ve had to change our mix. We’ve done so very efficiently to keep up with the times. We’ve lowered our price point a little bit. We still consider ourselves a very contemporary high-end specialty store, but we sell a lot more trendy clothes, a lot more shoes — much more fashionable than we used to be.”
One of the store’s biggest challenges came last year with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously, COVID in 2020 was a major event for all retailers,” Pizitz said. “It was even more so for a retailer like Gus Mayer because we cater to social events. We cater to weddings, parties, things like that. And almost everything we catered to was not happening anymore. People weren’t going out. People’s social life changed dramatically. Everything was curtailed.”
The store shut down for 2 1⁄2 months in 2020, during which time management and executive staff developed a reopening plan, pivoting the business to adapt to the new abnormal.
“We canceled a lot of orders in our special occasion departments,” Pizitz said. “We beefed up orders in contemporary (apparel). We added an athleisure department. We built that up very quickly because that’s what people were wearing — comfortable, casual clothes.”
When the store reopened, they found that customers had “some pent-up demand,” but business still wasn’t terrific. Store hours had to be shortened and a few staff members were furloughed.
The only area of growth last year, said Gus Mayer President Chuck Mallett, was in the store’s accessory department.
“I wouldn’t say we had a phenomenal 2020 in just about anything, but we had a phenomenal 2020 in our accessory business, because of the masks,” he said. “We had designer masks that were $50 apiece that we sold thousands of pieces of, and that drove a lot of the accessory business last year.”
Now, more than a year into the pandemic, business is finally starting to increase.
“As time has gone on, especially in the last month or so as vaccines have become more prevalent, we’ve seen a real, real surge in business,” Pizitz said. “People are starting to go out, starting to travel. Our buyers are traveling extensively to market, and we’re trying to merchandise our store to the customer’s needs.
“Being a smaller store as we are, we can really pivot very quickly, and in the past month or so people’s attitudes and everything have changed. People are starting to get back for social occasions. People are wanting to get cosmetics and makeup. They’re going out, they want to look good, and we’ve beefed up all those areas.”
Casual Dresses, Bright Colors Pushing the Trends
Mallett said the store has seen a “real resurgence” in sales of casual dresses. “People have been wearing their yoga clothes and that kind of thing for the past 12 to 18 months, and they seem to want to put on dresses,” he said. “I would say the look of the season is the casual dress and the fashion sneaker, so kind of a sneaker-dress look.”
There’s also been a greater interest in “mood-lifting colors,” such as pink or coral, “that make you feel really good and better about yourself,” he said. “And feminine details like embroidery, floral prints, lace trims, that kind of thing is doing very good.”
In terms of “utility” apparel, he said, “leggings and tights are giving way to shorts” — both workout and dressier city shorts.
But store managers are still waiting to see what happens with Gus Mayer’s accessory business.
“We haven’t seen the ‘it’ accessory really evolve for this year yet,” Mallett said. “It’s not like there’s a great belt or great scarf or handbag that’s driving the business. Our designer handbag business, whether it’s Louis Vuitton or Chanel, those businesses continue to be very, very good.
“But outside of that, the accessory business has been challenged so far this year, mostly because people don’t need masks anymore and we’re up against big mask numbers from last year.”
Still, things appear to be on the upswing for the retailer. “We’ve increased our staff and increased our hours, and although challenges remain, we are still very, very optimistic about fall 2021,” Pizitz said.
“I think the strongest component of the business for us is just that we continued though all of the challenges that COVID presented,” Mallett said. “We have incredible salespeople who have incredible relationships with the customers, and that has paid huge dividends for us as we’ve gone through the challenges of COVID. … Customers are coming into the store not only because the trends are so great, but to support those associates they’ve built relationships with over the years.”