In the formalwear business, prom season is the equivalent to Black Friday, Christmas and New Year’s combined. More tuxedos, dresses, gowns, bowties, vests, cumberbuns and gloves are moved during March and April than in the next four months put together. January and February are spent ramping up in anticipation of crowds of giddy teens and proud parents navigating the aisles of dresses adorned with sequins and lace, and mannequins fashioned with varieties of tuxes.
Such was the case at the Formalwear Outlet in Hillsborough. The family business originally opened its doors in the Daniel Boone Village in 1998 before moving to its current location in 2003. Elizabeth Sawyer and her brother, Matt Pinkston, took over day-to-day operations from their father, Malcolm Pinkston. The two were very familiar with the race to the prom.
But along came a pandemic that turned the formalwear industry inside-out. “All dressed up and no place to go” became “No place to go, why bother with anything other than PJs?”
All joking aside, few local businesses have experienced the jolting drop in revenue that the Formalwear Outlet has. When North Carolina announced on March 16 that schools will close and convert to a virtual model, prom season abruptly ended. Unlike restaurants and other retail businesses, where locals can show support by picking up dinner to go, or making an extra purchase, few people, if any, will drop in to purchase a bowtie.
Formalwear Outlet saw its sales drop by 95 percent compared with the same month during the previous year. “We knew it was going to be bad,” said Matt Pinkston. “We knew we were going to close down for what is typically our busiest two weeks of the year. After we closed, it got worse. We figured out it was a much bigger deal than was originally thought. We realized we weren’t going to open back up. Reality set in.”
“Looking back, when we first started hearing about it in January, and we were hearing about it in February, I never imagined it could come here like it did. That it would affect us like it did and as long as it did,” added Elizabeth Sawyer. “The week of March before we closed, we were having more specific conversations about what supplies we had on hand, and what do we need to get? We knew it would shut us down for a while, but we also knew it would affect the supply chain. So, we were talking about what we needed to do to be prepared for when the pandemic passed. We thought that would be sooner. They were talking about flattening the curve, and if we could just do certain things for a couple of weeks. That was the message at the time. We went from ‘we’re going to be open but it’s going to be challenging,’ to ‘we’re going to be closed in a day.’”
The company was already in full-prom mode, extending business hours each day and being open seven days a week. With seasonal and part-time staff, as many as 35 workers were on payroll. All were let go.
Formalwear Outlet applied for and received the Payroll Protection Program that enabled it to keep several of the full-time workers. They worked from home updating the website, boosting its social media presence, and taking care of a few orders.
“We still had a few orders to ship. Honestly, we were shocked anyone was ordering anything,” Pinkston joked. “What did they have to do or go to? What are they wearing that for?”
Even when the business could have reopened in April, Sawyer and Pinkston decided having people in the store wouldn’t be safe for the staff or customers. They also believed it would send the wrong message.
“We felt like if we were open, it would imply to people that it’s safe,” Sawyer said. “We didn’t really feel that way.”
When the Formalwear Outlet finally reopened it was during what is traditionally the worst time of the year for the formalwear business.
“Not only did we miss our busiest season, but we reopened in our slowest time of the year,” Sawyer said. “There were some weddings, there was no upswing. We still have been close to 60 percent of our normal volume, which we’re thankful for. But it by no means does what we need it to do.”
Formalwear Outlet ships nationally and sometimes globally. But unlike shipping and supply chain issues that are caused by hurricanes and other natural disasters, COVID-19 was affecting every corner of the world.
“We work with a lot of other rental stores,” Pinkston said. “We talk to rental stores all over the place and everybody was in the same mode. They were getting ready for their busiest time of the year and then they were just shut down.”
The staff at Formalwear Outlet have put safety precautions into place since it reopened. Masks are required for entry, and hand sanitizer must be used before you touch anything. The store is cleaned each morning and the surfaces are cleaned between customers. Clothes that are tried on are steamed or ‘quarantined’ by removing them from the showroom floor for a period of time.
“At first, when we opened back up, we were operating by appointment only,” Pinkston said. “We never did appointments before, but we were hopeful there would be a bunch of people who had to have outfits for weddings and who couldn’t shop with us while we were closed. We did appointments for a month or so. Then we realized that the volume wasn’t there.”
“We were also doing appointments so we could ask customers if they’ve been exposed, or if they have any symptoms,” Sawyer said. “We were able to get phone numbers for contact tracing. In the beginning, that seemed more necessary. As things went on, we got away from the appointments and just said ‘if you’re not feeling well, just stay home.’ The masks are required and we don’t do exemptions. We have a website. We’ll do curbside pickup. We’ll even do consultations by Zoom or FaceTime. We have to get close to measure somebody for their tuxedo. We have to help zip a gown. We can’t be six feet away all the time. We feel the masks are very important.”
Until the pandemic lifts, its spread is slowed or a vaccine is discovered, the folks at the Formalwear Outlet are hoping people will continue to think of them and look for creative ways to do business.
“There were some people who did the home proms,” Sawyer said. “It’s not something we’ve seen that often. We’re seeing a shift toward less-formal outfits. More suits than tuxedos. I had a wedding party recently that needed vests and ties to go with their bluejeans. We appreciate any and all ways we can meet your needs.”
Sawyer says if the pandemic is still around during the 2021 prom season, the store plans to be proactive in working with families to ensure their teens can still have as much of the full prom experience as possible, tuxes, gowns and everything.
One way the company has tried to stem the loses from the pandemic was by adding a women’s boutique.
“During our closure and upon reopening in May we reflected on how to move forward in 2020,” Sawyer said. “Our Sales Manager, Kristin Sykes, stepped up and inspired us to grow in a new direction. With her guidance during this challenging time we’ve been able to pivot and increase our offerings to our local community. We have opened a brand new women’s boutique clothing department in our store and we call it Boutique on Millstone. The boutique department opened at the end of June and our online shopping website launched in early September. Boutique on Millstone specializes in offering trendy and affordable boutique clothing and accessories for women of all ages. Inside the boutique, you will find clothing items you can wear for all occasions, from casual every day wear to specialty pieces for engagement or senior pictures, Sunday brunch, a night out on the town, and more. With women’s sizes small to 3XL in stock we hope to offer an inclusive shopping experience for women of all sizes. We hope that opening Boutique on Millstone inside Formalwear Outlet will provide our local community additional options to shop local and shop small. Now, more than ever, I think we can all see the importance of supporting the small businesses we love.”
Formalwear Outlet is at 415 Millstone Drive in Hillsborough.