Putting the Customer First: The Secret behind Hot Sam's 96 Years in Detroit

Leather pants and a sharp black fedora are two things you might find at Hot Sam’s Clothier in Downtown Detroit. That’s what the owners, Tony Stovall and Cliff Green, donned when they welcomed me into their store for an interview this March.

Fine, affordable men’s dress isn’t the only thing you’ll find at Hot Sam’s, which is located on the corner of Monroe and Randolph. I also found a neighborhood atmosphere where customers are referred to by name.

It’s not by luck that Hot Sam’s is the oldest men’s clothing store in Downtown Detroit. Sam Friedman founded the store in 1921 and, thanks to a commitment to customer service, his family business endured the Great Depression and the rise and fall of Detroit’s population.

         An excellent customer experience is at the core of Hot Sam’s success. “The third and fourth generational clientele are our bread and butter,” explained Mr. Stovall, who purchased the store with Mr. Green in 1994. The two began as Hot Sam’s employees around 1970, and they view their ascension to ownership as a testament to the American Dream.

It’s the commitment to “custom fit” service that keeps clients coming back. Instead of asking, “What are you looking for?” Mr. Green explained that, “[Hot Sam’s] offer[s] years of experience to tell you ‘What’s the occasion?’” From there, the owners are able to guide customers towards something that perhaps they didn’t know they wanted.

         More customers to please are coming, and Mr. Stovall largely thanks investor Dan Gilbert for that. By welcoming newcomers to the neighborhood, Hot Sam’s has maintained a seat at the table. While the resurgence that Detroit is experiencing is unique, it is but one period in a long history of flux. Green and Stovall have found success as small business owners in this city by standing their ground but remaining open to change.

Hot Sam’s has adjusted its inventory through the eras to attract a solid customer base.The owners conceded their resistance to accepting the casual approach to fashion nowadays. As self-classified “dress up guys,” I can see why they’d be miffed with professionals sporting jeans—or worse—athleisure ware.

With the development of New Detroit (a term the team considers synonymous with “Millennials”) the owners’ children have been important actors in marketing and purchasing. “Hot Sam’s will remain a family business,” said Lauren Stovall, Operations Manager, who is being primed with Chaste Green to take over the store.     

During the interview, Ms. Stovall explained her role as the business’s eyes and ears. Among other things, it’s her job to know who the potential clients are and what they’re asking for. By canvassing the new employees who continue to arrive downtown, she’s observed the trend towards business casual. Since the potential clients are wearing jeans, Hot Sam’s decided to start carrying jeans.

The team finds increasingly that young men are using the Hot Sam’s website to determine what they want to buy before they enter the storefront. And while the internet helps to bring clients into the store, it’s the “owner’s touch” that sells them.

“We wouldn’t let you buy anything we wouldn’t wear,” said Mr. Green. The team guides each client towards items that are complementary to his body. Decades of experience and resources allow them to offer multiple suit styles—a competitive advantage over smaller, younger brands that carry less options.

For now, though, Hot Sam’s will remain a men’s-only clothing store. The good news for the ladies of Detroit is there are a number of other retailers filling in vacant storefrontsDowntown.“We knock on their doors and welcome them to the neighborhood,” said Lauren. And Hot Sam’s plans to do a lot more welcoming in the years ahead.