Mitchells At 60: Westport Flagship Store Flies High

A couple of Saturdays ago, hundreds of folks from Fairfield County and beyond jammed Mitchells.

They celebrated the store’s 60th anniversary — and its just-completed major reconfiguration.

The 27,000 square feet sparkle with updated designs, new collections, fresh lighting and an ultra-modern feel.

The fresh, new interior at Mitchells of Westport.

One floor below — where dozens of employees direct the operations of the 9 stores Mitchells owns on the East and West Coasts, and 18 tailors work their magic — another renovation has launched the business far into the future too.

It’s a far cry from the first Ed Mitchell’s store in 1958. All those celebrating customers last month could not even have fit in that tiny shop on the corner of Post Road and North Compo.

Back then, “the Mitchells” consisted of Ed and his wife Norma, and Ed’s mother (who did the tailoring).

The original Ed Mitchell’s. It’s now the site of People’s United Bank.

Yet 60 years ago they put out a coffee pot, and poured free cups. It was a small gesture, but a telling one. We want you here, the Mitchells said. And we’ll do whatever we can to make you feel at home.

The coffee pot has been replaced by a fancy machine, with espresso and capuccino options. Ed and Norma’s family is now on the 3rd generation, with a 4th waiting in the wings. Most family-owned businesses don’t make it past generation 2.

The coffee cup and family feeling are why Mitchells has survived — and thrived — over 6 decades.

I’ve known Bill and Jack Mitchell — Ed’s sons — since my father took me to the store as a child. I coached all 3 of Bill’s sons. I know many other Mitchells.

But the other day, as I sat with Jack (now chairman of all 9 stores) and his son Andrew (chief marketing officer) for a quiet, casual conversation about the past 60 years, I realized what a remarkable story this is.

A Mitchell family photo. Jack is at far left; Andrew is 4th from left, and Bill is at far right.

Although the business is now national, its roots remain right here in Westport. And that is the key both to Mitchells’ success, and why it is such a great “06880” tale.

“We’re bucking a national trend,” Jack says. “The headlines across the US are about retailers — Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and a lot more — that are closing stores and concentrating online. We’re investing in brick and mortar.”

Mitchells does have a robust web presence. But, Andrew adds, “we believe the digital world must support the in-store experience.”

“Our value that the customer comes first, and our goal of building relationships, hasn’t changed since I was at Wesleyan University and my dad opened the store,” Jack says.

“But this has changed.” He holds up his iPhone.

His staff uses the internet to track inventory, and ship it so customers can find the right shirt, suit, blouse or shoes online. They’re encouraged to visit a store, try it on and have it tailored. An item in the Seattle store can be shipped quickly to any other store, in Westport, Greenwich, Long Island, California or Oregon.

Customers browse online. But many enjoy the in-store experience too.

But Mitchells does much more. Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people.

“People are busy today. If they can only look at shoes at 10 p.m. when the kids are in bed, fine,” Andrew says. “If someone in a London hotel room sends an email or text, it may be 3 a.m. here. But we’ll take care of it.”

When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of.

What is a “fashion emergency”? An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen.

A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Jack Mitchell (left) lives in Wilton. Bill lives in Westport. They — and their extended family — go the extra mile (literally) to help customers.

That personal touch is why customers continue to flock to the stores. Each one is different. However — as they’ve bought properties across the country — the Mitchells have been careful to keep each local identity.

And name.

“Why change Richards in Greenwich, Marsh’s in Huntington, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and Palo Alto, or Marios in Seattle and Portland?” Jack asks. (There’s also a by-appointment tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 58th Street.)

“Every one of those stores is part of its community. Our customers have 9 times the inventory, but the heart and soul of the customer experience is local.”

And the local Westport experience informs everything the entire company does.

“Our corporate office is here,” Jack says. “We have more Mitchells on the floor here than any other store. This is our heart and soul. It’s where it all began.”

For 60 years, Mitchells has embraced the community. They host 2 major fundraisers each year — Pink Aid (which started here) and Near and Far.

But they open their doors to 150 or so smaller events each year. Shopping nights for charity, group meetings, small fashion show fundraisers — just ask, and the Mitchells say, “Sure!”

Their quiet, behind-the-scenes help is even more legendary. The stories could fill a book. (In fact, Jack — the “hug your customer” expert — has written 3.)

“My father always said, ‘if you’re good to the community, you’ll have a healthy business,'” Jack says.

“Westport has been good to us. We just try to give back.”

FUN FACT: Why — when Mitchells changed the name from “Ed Mitchell’s” — did they eliminate the apostrophe? “It’s not about us owning it,” Jack explains. “It’s about all of us growing, one customer and one family member at a time.”

And, he adds: “If we were starting the business today, it would not be Ed Mitchell’s. It would be Ed and Norma Mitchell’s.”

He pauses, thinking about his mother’s enormous contributions to the success of the store.

“Or Norma and Ed’s.”

12 responses to “Mitchells At 60: Westport Flagship Store Flies High

  1. Bravo, well deserved success!

  2. So here is a great Mitchells story. A friend of mine had to go to London for an emergency work week and dropped all of his suits off to be cleaned and it was saturday night when he realized he had none of his suits. Here is your fashion emergency. He called Mitchells and they not only opened the store on sunday forhim for 30 minutes to get a few suits, but they had the tailor meet them there and alterations done by 3pm for his night flight.

    Yes this seems like a ridiculous problem in the scheme of the world but its not. It does not matter if you work a highway toll both, a drive thru burger king, or the ceo of a major firm. In every occupation, what brings customers back is the same thing. A customer wants to see passion and happiness and a belief in the product, and regardless of what you spent, was the experience enjoyable. It seems aimple but most everyone screws it up, but not Mitchells.

    The last thing ill say, is Mitchells makes you feel good spending more than most anywhere else. It really is a joy to go in there and the product is awesome, so congrats to them and well deserved!

  3. AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Great story. And they have demonstrated community spirit and generosity in countless other ways over the years. A couple of examples that I’m aware of from my personal experiences:
    —when we organized an effort two decades ago to have the Staples soccer field named in honor of the retired legendary coach, Albie Loeffler, while he was still alive, Bill Mitchell did not want to merely join in the letter writing campaign; he looking to take on a more active role because of the strong feelings he had for his former coach. Among other things, I remember Bill taking the time to attend and give a public statement of support at town meetings such as Board of Ed and P & Z—and he even gave me a ride back to the train station when I told him I was planning on taking a cab there. And Mitchells created and donated special commemorative baseball hats for all returning soccer alumni who attended the Albie Loeffler Field ceremony.
    —when retired popular teacher Gordon Hall suffered a stroke a couple of years ago, Bill arranged to have the UCONN women’s basketball squad members autograph a team poster (because Bill knows what a passionate UCONN women’s hoops fan Gordon is).

    Kudos to the entire Mitchell family.

  5. I have worked at Mitchells for 33Yrs. part time to full time. Their customer service is tops but I see the other side their employee relationships are great also. One big happy family we eat lunches together and share family stories. My daughter worked there all thru High School and College and I feel they really learned alot about dealing with people and respect. Congrats to all!!

  6. I’ve lived in Westport for over 30 years and I have to say I always used to look askance at Mitchells. I generally hate shopping in all its forms and Mitchells seemed to elevate shopping, and high-end shopping at that, into almost a way of life. I refused to go into the place. Then at one point my wife started bringing home things from there and laughing at my protests. She occasionally sent me in to deliver stuff for returns or alterations and I felt like a soldier on a mission behind enemy lines.

    But then people started talking to me. Jennifer in particular, the lady who usually takes care of my wife, was kind, personable, and really skilled at what she did – these being among the traits I most admire in people. At one point she coaxed me over to the men’s department and, surprising myself, I actually bought something. I started realizing that most of the staff people, like Jennifer, seemed to enjoy their work, respect the people around them, and knew how to put even hostile customers at ease.

    My wife tells one story of how she was in the store one day and they for some crazy reason had a super-premium automobile parked inside on the floor. There was a guy sitting nonchalantly behind the wheel and my wife, having no idea who he was, went over and asked playfully how it was that he got to sit there and she didn’t. He immediately invited her into the passenger seat and they chatted happily for several minutes. He never did say who he was, and it was only later that she learned the stranger had been Bill Mitchell himself!

    I was in business for many years and know from close observation how hard it is to make a multi-generational family company continue to operate without forgetting what it was that made their parents and grandparents successful. The retail industry is particularly prone to this death trap. Mitchells has expanded a lot and, I would think, must potentially be in some danger on this score, but at least judging from the original store here in town, it would seem they’re holding true.

    I still hate shopping as much as ever, and only go in when I have to, but I now view the Mitchell family and their store as an asset to our community. I hope they stick around for a long time.

  7. Bill Boyd... Staples 66

    What a beautifully written article Dan! I was very fortunate to begin shopping at Mitchell’s in 1959… not because of the clothes so much (the clothes are first rate!) but because Ed. Norma and the rest of the family and staff were/are so welcoming… I wish them much joy and and continuing success!

  8. I remember going into Mitchell’s for by first pair of blue jeans in Compo Shopping Center in the early 60’s. Was greeted…. in the typical trademarked Mitchell family way by Ed . No family has given back more to Westport than the Mitchell’s.
    There sense of community and generosity is an inspiration to all.
    Many more years of success to this outstanding family owned business!

  9. I can’ t remember what year it was (probably around 1954-5), but I
    do remember going to Dr. Ring, the dentist on the 2nd floor of the
    building at North Compo and the Post road – it seems there was a
    store on the first floor that sold clothes…
    Fast forward some years and it was either Ed Mitchell’s or
    The Fairfield Department store that provided my clothing needs.
    Many years later I would stop in at Mitchell’s and exchange some story
    or other with the sons about the store. I’m so glad that they have
    have prospered and not fallen victim to the many store closures
    Westport has seen in recent times.

  10. my favorite story about Mitchells will forever be when town & store lost electricity and instead of closing business continued with wine and cheese by candlelight, receipts written by hand if they were even needed. It’s a gorgeous store, and a fun store, Always.

  11. One of theses days I will pick up the other sock.

    Best to you and yours,
    Toni and Steve
    Charleston

  12. Great story and great family. Who says the retail store is dead? Just do it the Mitchell’s way.

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