Syms

Syms’ rags-to-riches-to-rags story pivots on its adherence to this famous motto.

“Come to Syms, where an educated consumer is our best customer.”

I heard that slogan, trumpeted by the store’s founder Sy Syms, countless times in ads over television and radio since they were first broadcast in 1974. The “educated consumer” slogan even appeared on the store’s shopping bags.

The first branch of Syms, an off-price clothing retailer, opened in 1959. Through the 1960s and 1970s the number of locations gradually expanded, including one less than a five-minute walk from where I was growing up. So as a youngster, I’d often stroll to Syms, which was unlike any department store I’ve seen before or since.

It was not huge, yet somehow spacious. The first floor was devoted to women’s and girls’ clothing, the basement to boys garb and menswear. But the store also sold shoes, umbrellas, linens, wallets, luggage, handkerchiefs, pajamas, bathrobes and clothing for infants. Pretty much you name it, they somehow stocked it.

The range was vast. Jeans and other casual clothes, work clothes, formal clothes and everything in between.

I got a pretty good consumer education at Syms.

Each garment had a tag attached that told you the current price, what price the item would drop to a week or two from now, and the price it would drop to three or four weeks from now.

So the shopper, if guided by logic rather than impulsiveness, would stop and try to think. “Hmm, should I buy this now at $50? Or chance its still being here next week when I can grab it for $30? Or do I risk waiting three weeks to get it for $15?” In the meantime, of course, other shoppers could purchase that item. Once it sold, it would not be restocked.

So you had to weigh how badly you wanted or needed something vs. the potential savings in cost from patiently waiting.

Maybe it was a gimmick, but it was a gimmick I loved.

I’d like to see more shoppers today stopping and thinking about how immediate is their need. If it’s an item you merely want, well, people being people, perhaps you won’t want it so much a week from Tuesday.

Every suit I tried on, the legs were a foot too long and my arms didn’t emerge from the sleeves. Not a problem, provided the waist fit, for professional tailors worked downstairs doing alterations. Guys with really long limbs, and guys like me with short limbs, could conceivably buy the same garment. The tailor, for a small fee, would shorten (and cuff or hem if you wished) the garment for you, which you picked up another day.

These tailors didn’t ask you your size. They measured you. They used tailor’s chalk to mark the garment they had to adjust.

You don’t get that kind of service in big-box stores.

People came from all over the county — which had dozens of much larger department stores — by car and by bus just to shop at Syms.

Syms never called its lowest-price days “sales.” No, those were “bashes.”

The merchandise was good. I still have a tuxedo I bought there 25 years ago and wear when the occasion arises. I still use luggage bought there 30 years ago. My raincoat (a London Fog) was bought there 35 years ago and still wears well.

Syms went public in 1983, which allowed it to expand, at first to 11 stores.

But going public also started its demise.

A founder loses control when he takes his company public, not just at Syms, but everywhere. (Steve Jobs was eventually ousted by Apple, which he had co-founded, before they begged him to return and save it from itself.)

Once Syms went public, there were shareholders and board members to please. The new powers-at-large chose to chase revenue by expanding as much and as fast as possible. Eventually there were 48 stores.

Then it looked for ways to cut costs by cutting services.

My mother said it best when she described her turn-of-the-century shopping experiences there: “Syms isn’t Syms anymore.”

I knew what she meant. Gone were the dignified tailors. Gone was the keep-dropping-the-price-until-it-sells approach.

Gone were the days of treating customers like educated customers. Instead, we were treated like scraps of marketable data.

Syms had become just like all the other stores.

In November 2011, Syms filed for bankruptcy. The doors were all closed by year’s end.

But in its time, Syms molded a corps of educated consumers.

Some of us live on.

If you have consumerism questions, send them to Arthur Vidro care of this newspaper, which publishes his column every weekend.

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