Melissa Austria may have a small menswear business, but she has big plans.

The founder of Gotstyle aims to create “the retail store of the future” by marrying the old-school high-touch “experience” she has cultivated at her two Toronto stores with the newfangled personalization and convenience that digital technologies offer. That combination, she believes, will put Gotstyle on a surer footing in a retail industry that’s under duress and, ultimately, help it grow much larger.

Gotstyle’s stores are designed to provide the modern gentleman with everything he needs to look good — clothes, shoes, even a haircut — from a Monday board meeting to Saturday night out, Austria says. But these days, in addition to designing displays and selecting clothing cuts and colors, she’s is picking out hot new technologies to make shopping even quicker and more enjoyable for men who may not care to shop but want to dress well.

“It really boils down to, not technology for the sake of technology, but technology based on making men’s lives easier,” she says.

When it Pays to be Small

To get there, Austria is negotiating with an array of tech companies that are eager to test and showcase their inventions on sales floors — and she’s happy to test the right products, if that means she gets in on the ground floor at rock-bottom prices.

Austria’s bold can-do attitude seems to reflect the same energy, competitiveness and precision that once made this “best dressed” daughter of Filipino immigrants a member of a nationally decorated Canadian cheerleading squad. Singularly focused, driven and, of course, stylishly dressed, Austria regularly walks her shop floors tweaking the smallest details, from the folds of dress socks to cufflink displays to perfect rows of collared shirts.

She asserts that small, nimble players like Gotstyle, which launched in 2005 and today has 20 employees and about $5.5M Canadian in annual sales, have an important advantage when it comes to modernizing retail because they’re willing to experiment and pivot quickly.

“Other companies might have more money, might be bigger. That actually is a hindrance, because they can’t implement change fast enough in their stores,” she says, explaining that big chains’ slow bureaucracies are loath to undertake the large capital investments needed to remake hundreds of stores.

“For us, when somebody says ‘we want to come in and build you a new mobile app,’ we say: ‘Sure, let’s go.’”

In fact, Gotstyle rolled out a mobile app developed by Lucova a year and a half ago, which has been downloaded by more than 2,000 customers, that lets them pay wirelessly via Bluetooth (akin to Apple Pay) and collect loyalty points automatically. It will track purchases and use these data to build customer profiles including details like clothing sizes and product preferences. (Today, customers can tap images of outfits they like to help Gotstyle build that profile.)

In that spirit, Gotstyle plans to let customers who shop on its website select items and then make an appointment to try them on at a store, where they will be ready and waiting in a fitting room. It is also testing 2-hour deliveries of online purchases to local customers. “It’s the Uber-ization of shopping,” Austria says.

More futuristic, Austria plans to use data she collects from dedicated customers to help them decide what to wear each day. “If you’re a busy executive, you don’t have time to worry about putting your wardrobe together in the morning,” she says. “We know what you have in your closet based on what you’ve bought. We can put outfits together for you and send it to you every day… based on what your appointment schedule is like.”

Going Digital to Survive and Thrive

Embracing technology is serious business for Austria. It is about “surviving,” she says, “because if we don’t change we’re going to be dead in 10 years.” She points out that many major retailers posted especially disappointing earnings reports recently, as they struggle to adapt to two seismic trends now rattling the industry: online shopping and “fast fashion.” She says traditional retailers are burdened with too much inventory — which they have to buy 6 months in advance based on guesses of what will sell — and that many are closing stores.

In this difficult environment, “the ones that are going to do well are the ones who are going to be able to adapt,” she says.  

That means harnessing technologies and customer data for more effective merchandising, sales and marketing. Austria is beginning to use data to make better and quicker decisions about what products to carry and how to display them. And she empowers salespeople to serve customers better, for instance, by enabling them to greet by name customers who use the Gotstyle app when they walk in the store. (In the future, salespeople will get cheatsheets with his sizes and preferences based on past purchases.)

Austria is already using data analytics from Turnstyle to guide targeted email campaigns. Gotstyle recently sent personalized messages to customers who had spent at least $2,000 in the past, but had not bought anything in 6 months, to woo them back with a discount offer. Around 30 guys came in over two weeks and spent $30,000, she says.

To realize her grander vision, Austria is developing an initial version of a future-store concept that Gotstyle can pilot in planned new stores — a concept that includes “smart mirrors,” digital signage and price tags, and new technologies and data applications yet to emerge.  Once she has a strong working template, she aims to expand to other Canadian and U.S. cities, likely via a franchise model.

She’s looking for investors now to help her breathe life into that big plan: to create stores with “the best of online and the best of offline together in one experience.”

Read Full Transcript

Melissa Austria – Founder – Gotstyle

Melissa Austria (MA): Women are really funny. When, when we go shopping we’re like, You know, don’t talk to me. Men wanna be talked to.

SOT: I mean, it looks good with everything, this color. It even looks good with what you’re wearing right now.

-Perfect yeah it looks
MA: Men come with a, a goal in mind. They need something, “I have an outfit, I have an event, I need this.” They want that more communication compared to women.
MA SOT: Oh, looks nice. Yeah, much better with the brown shoes.
MA: If you take care of a guy, he will be your customer for life.

CARD: Melissa Austria – Founder, Gotstyle – Toronto, Canada

MA: Gotstyle is a lifestyle store for men. Guys want one place where they can buy / their weekend wear, their hangout clothes, their going out clothes, their suits, get their shoes, their accessories, and get their hair done.

SOT: You’re shaggy today
-Big time, big time

MA: Once you’re coming to Gotstyle you’re not going any place else.

CARD: Melissa loved fashion from an early age.

MA: I couldn’t really draw or sew but when I was growing up I would cut out Vogue magazines and put that all over my wall. And, in fact, when I was in high school I uh got voted “best dressed.”

CARD: After high school, Melissa began studying at the Academy of Merchandising and Design in Toronto.

MA: I was there for about a year and a half and then after being almost like, you know, $15,000 in debt I’m thinking, “I need to get a job.” So that’s when I started working on the uh retail side and I was lucky enough to quite early on start working at Harry Rosen.

CARD: Harry Rosen is Canada’s preeminent menswear store.

MA: Harry Rosen is really good in the sense that you can’t start selling the suits right away. They start giving you a very rigorous training to start selling tailored clothing ’cause they really wanna make sure that you know what you’re doing before you’re selling a $2,000 suit to somebody.

CARD: Melissa went on to become a brand manager for iconic designers like Calvin Klein, Valentino and Armani.

MA: When I was 32 I’ve, you know, been in the wholesale industry for a good, you know, ten, 12 years doing a lot of traveling. And it’s definitely glamorous but after a while it’s not. And especially after 9/11, um traveling wasn’t fun anymore.

CARD: In 2004 Melissa teamed up with a business partner, secured a bank loan and poured her savings into starting Gotstyle.

MA: We’re going after what I like to call the every day guy. So he’s the guy that you know, doesn’t care about the labels or the brands but still wants to dress, dress well.

CARD: Before the Gotstyle store even opened, Melissa had a huge stroke of marketing luck.

MA: Home and Garden TV started to do uh, a feature on us called Opening Soon By Design. They pretty much followed us for about six months prior to opening, so all the headaches, all the trials and tribulations.

SOT: Let’s just make a few calls

MA SOT: Yeah
- The stuff didn’t quite get delivered on time so you could say

MA: I think they probably played that almost every single week for probably six months to a year.

SOT: Unbelievable

MA SOT: I just dropped my glasses in my drink

MA: Having that visibility and that branding really, really helped get the store, you know, on the map.

CARD: While the store was doing well, Melissa and her business partner were not.

MA: We’re you know, yelling and screaming in the store, which is, you know, obviously not good for the staff and not good for the customers.

CARD: Eventually, Melissa hired a lawyer who helped her buy out her partner.

MA: Having that stress, and you internalize it and it comes out physically so, I had shingles on my face. My hair was coming out in like huge clumps. At the same time if I didn’t go through that heartache it wouldn’t make me who I am today. So now I find that nothing fazes me. Nothing’s an issue. Nothing’s a big deal.

CARD: In 2006 Melissa started the Gotstyle private label, all made in Canada.

MA: Even though there’s a lot of great product out there, we still find that we’re missing specific things for our guys. We have a lot of guys that are bigger with long arms and we couldn’t find a shirt that would fit them properly so we developed our own Gotstyle shirt. And same with a lot of our suits and our jackets. Again, we’re Canada. We got a lot of big boys.

CARD: GotStyle now has two shops, 20 employees and sales of $5.5 million Canadian.
CARD: Melissa is planning to expand beyond Toronto.
CARD: She is carefully integrating technology into her stores.

MA SOT: We have pretty much all the samples

MA: We do have the mobile app so it’s a mobile pay and loyalty points, and it also allows us when you come into the store you pop up on our iPad, “Now, hey, Steve’s in the store,” so we can greet them by name.

MA SOT: So just have like all the shirts here, pants, and then put all the sport coats

MA: As we’re getting more technology driven we’re getting more distant from each other. But we still want that recognition, we still wanna be made to feel special so it’s sorta about having the two of them together to offer something different and that’s the approach that we’re gonna use to, to grow going forward.