Years ago the majority of men’s underwear was actually purchased by women.
Not surprising, considering underwear weren’t really at the top of the list for what most men considered important products to upgrade or focus on — for years, men have pretty much just continued to wear the same styles and brands they always have.
But the industry is changing, and men are now taking more ownership of their undergarments.
Tom Patterson, founder and CEO of Tommy John, shared with PYMNTS how the men’s underwear company is disrupting the industry not only with its products, but also with its approach to marketing and delivering personalized customer experiences.
PYMNTS: How did Tommy John get started? How did you come up with the idea to tackle the “sleepy industry” of men’s underwear?
TP: Back in 2007 and 2008, there was this show on CNBC called The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, where he had a lot of entrepreneurs who came up with ideas come on his show and explain their story to share with the viewers how they started. Almost all the entrepreneurs thought, “Maybe there’s a better way to make this because I don't like what exists on the market,” and I just woke up every day wondering what I could make better. I thought about what frustrated me, whether it was a cell phone cover, headphones, wine glasses or even pens. Then one day going into a hospital in San Diego when I was a medical device salesman, I got out the car, and my dress shirt was tucked in but my undershirt was bunched up around my waistline. I just thought, “Why hasn’t anyone invented an undershirt that stays tucked in through movement and stays in place, doesn’t bunch up or come untucked, turn yellow and shrink?” But I couldn’t find one in the market, so I ended up going to the garment district in downtown Los Angeles and bought fabric, then got it tailored at a local dry cleaner with a sketch that my wife helped me draw. It was $100 to see if my idea worked, and from there we made more samples, sent them to friends, and that’s really how we started.
PYMNTS: Now that there’s more attention on the men’s underwear retail category, how do you see the industry evolving?
TP: When we got into it, it was a really sleepy category, but I think consumers are starting to wake up. If you look at men’s underwear, it’s really one of the last things in a guy’s closet that he’s upgraded. He’s upgraded from a flip phone to an iPhone, a black-and-white TV to an HD TV and pleated pants to flat-front pants, but his underwear really hasn’t changed in 10, 15 or even 20 years. Men mostly still wear the underwear their mom or grandma gives them for Christmas.
I think through innovation, better fabric, better fit and problem-solving functionality, we invented and actually patented the first men’s undershirt that stays tucked in. We have a horizontal fly so guys can go to the bathroom faster, and we have patented fabrics that don’t shrink, keep you cooler, dry faster and never pill so they look newer longer. We’ve really taken the product and the performance features a step further, and as a result, we’ve started to disrupt a lot of the traditional brands through innovation to give the guy a more comfortable experience at the end of the day with better product.
PYMNTS: How did you make the decision to go the direct-to-consumer (D2C) eCommerce route versus using a brick-and-mortar channel?
TP: We actually started as a traditional old school brand getting into great department stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, but we had trouble growing. We just couldn’t get in any more retailers, so I decided to go directly to the consumer and really build a relationship with the customer. Now we’ve really taken up this online-first approach, but we’ve never been online-only. That’s because 90 percent of purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores. Having a product in great retailers really gives a level of credibility in that you had to go through the hoops and ladders to get approval from department store buyers who are very specific about the quality and standards for the brands that they bring in. That touchpoint with physical has allowed our online channel to grow, along with having great organic endorsements by people like comedian Kevin Hart and big radio personalities Howard Stern and Mike & Mike. They all ended up becoming fans of the brand first with no strings attached — we didn’t even send them underwear; they just found it — and now what we are finding is that 50 percent of our customers who place an order online come back and buy again within two months.
We’ve really embraced this omnichannel approach – you have to be where the customer is, whether it’s online or offline. Now what we’re seeing is that we are going to double our retail presence this year with Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Men’s Warehouse and Bloomingdales, along with doubling our online presence.
PYMNTS: How has the company disrupted or changed the men’s underwear industry?
TP: We’ve always taken a product-first approach, and it’s always been about combining fabric, unique fit and problem-solving functionality. When I looked at the category and the way products were marketed and sold in stores, I just couldn’t relate to it. It was too confusing to find the product I wanted in stores, and the things that I liked were always discontinued the next season. I think a lot of men relied on their spouses, girlfriends or parents to make their purchases. When we started the company, 65 percent of men’s underwear was purchased by women, but this year it will be less than 20 percent. Guys have really embraced taking more ownership for their own purchases.
If you see the way that we market, we’re not afraid to talk about the uncomfortable truths – we are the first brand to have a no-wedgie guarantee. Our underwear doesn’t ride up, and you don’t have to adjust yourself — there’s no pinching and no bunching. We take a very literal, witty and kind of comedic approach to selling underwear, and I think that’s just been a new, fresh perspective. As a result, I think we’ve been able to disrupt the industry with more authentic marketing.
PYMNTS: What is your take on the “Warby of X” concept? Do you see D2C evolving as a sustainable business model?
TP: I think it’s a great, low-risk way to introduce the brand to prospective customers. It’s obviously trickier for an underwear company because of sanitary reasons. Obviously, you can try on glasses at home, but underwear is not able to be replicated the same way. We have a best-pair guarantee, so if you don’t think Tommy John is the best pair you’ve ever worn, then we’ll give the underwear to you or you can return and exchange for a different style or size that you like. That’s worked really well for us.
But I do think that scalability of a solely D2C approach is inhibited because you have to have an omnichannel presence to enhance that scalability. That’s why you’re seeing brands like Warby Parker build their own stores, because online could only take them so far and this multichannel approach is really the way that brands will be able to continue to scale in the category. But also I think some of the benefits of having that D2C approach is that you control the experience, can build that direct brand relationship with customers and have access to the customer data to better serve the customer and give them a more personalized experience. That’s one thing we definitely learned as our business has shifted more and more online — the relationship is becoming more and more important.
PYMNTS: What’s next for Tommy John? Do you have any news or updates you can share?
TP: This year is really exciting, and there are a ton of new things in the pipeline. We just launched Tommy John Labs, which is a comfort-first approach to more leisure wear and activewear products. Our goal is to become the experts in comfort, which can include underwear, socks, activewear, sweatpants or lounge wear. Also, keep an eye out for a collaboration with Kevin Hart that will be launching in fall 2017. Kevin reached out to us last year and wanted to invest in the company, help it grow and build brand awareness through his social media channels.
We really want to continue to push the envelope and give the consumer better products based on feedback that we get from them. With having an online business, it really allows you to capture data and find ways to improve the product and make it better.