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VOL. 35 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 15, 2011

Levy’s leverages itself with service, style and sophisticated swagger

By Hollie Deese

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David Levy

At a time when big-box retailers have brought designer clothes to the masses at reasonable prices – and temporary pop-up shops are what’s hot in youth-driven retail – the idea of a family-owned clothier seems almost quaint. And the idea that such a business not only exists but has thrived for 156 years seems almost unreal.

But that is what Levy’s has done.

In 1855, Zadoc Levy left Germany to follow the American Dream of working for himself and providing for his family. He came to Nashville and opened a small tailor shop on Market Street (now Second Avenue). How could he know that small shop would become one of the city’s longest running family ventures?

While in business, Zadoc noticed his clientele preferred the latest fashions from New York. He became one of their providers.

By the time the 1900s rolled around, Raphael Z. Levy, one of the Zadoc’s sons, took over the business and moved the store to a multi-level building on Fourth Avenue, creating one of Nashville’s first department stores.

In the 1920s, his sons, Herbert and Alfred Levy, came to work, and by the 1940s the business passed into the hands of another generation of Zadoc’s descendants, Ralph Z. Levy Sr. and A. J. Levy Jr.

It was in that Fourth Avenue store that current owner and son of Ralph, David Levy, was first introduced to the business, running the cash register as soon as he was tall enough to reach it – while standing on a crate.

And while he doesn’t need the crate anymore – he’s 6-foot-5 – he still takes what he learned in those early days and incorporates it into everything he does to maintain Levy’s success. Barely 20 when he really committed to the family business, Levy has seen it through some its bigger transitions, but always with the commitment to the customer at the forefront.

“The business we are in is very personal,” he says. “You are dealing with people’s egos, with people’s style and with their right brain in a lot of ways. It takes handholding and it takes building a relationship so you really know that client. Not what his wants are but, really, what his needs are. You have to get a little deeper than just a guy coming in and saying I want a black suit or tan pants.”

It also wasn’t too long after David began fulltime at Levy’s that he met wife Ellen. Also in retail, she was a buyer at the Cain-Sloan department store downtown. Originally from Mississippi, Ellen’s family moved here when she was in college, and it didn’t take long for some cousins to play matchmaker.

“David grew up with their son, so they kind of fixed us up,” she says. “And the rest was history.” Married in 1980, she didn’t move over to Levy’s until 1983. But she has been a part of the team ever since.

You would think this kind of brick-and-mortar business model, located in Green Hills since 1978, would fade away. Now core customers turned their kids onto Levy’s, their ability to keep up with current marketing trends – think e-blasts, biannual glossy fashion magazine, in-store girls-night-out events, a twitter feed – in no way takes away from their mission.

“We have values and visions that we have identified,” David says. “Our vision statement is ‘Committed to you and your image.’ Your image is important, and we are committed to making that the best it can be. And every client has different needs. But we are also committed to you, we are committed to our community, not just to clothes. And I think that is something we find is very important.”

That could mean raising money for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital or finding a network of people to distribute clothes for last year’s flood victims. In fact, they even got vendors to send clothes to distribute.

Perhaps it is this commitment to community that has helped sustain the business. Or perhaps it is actually the clothes. David and Ellen travel to New York and Italy, investing in quality fabrics and labels their customers, including some Tennessee Titans, have come to love. And the fact that they are so close to their customers works to their buying advantage.

“Typically a national chain has a central buying office in a city way different from Nashville,” David says. “It could be in Arkansas or Dallas. And we feel that there is a difference between buying for a national group of stores and buying for a local store. I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but those differences could include weather, styles, culture – there all sorts of things that we see that are different than a national chain. At Levy’s, the buyers are standing on the store, listening to customers, listening to the sales associates and listening to tailors, trying to put together the best information before going to that next market trip.”

And the customers have noticed.

“The assortment and quality of the clothing, almost has equal footing with their enormous customer service,” says longtime customer Barry Tamburin. “And, by the way, I think has gotten even better the last few years.”

Tamburin has purchased everything from flip-flops and shorts to tailor-made tuxedos at Levy’s, and has found he doesn’t need to shop New York or Chicago anymore.

“I travel a lot, and there was a space in time where I would find myself shopping quite a bit in New York or Atlanta,” he says. “And I find it is not as necessary to look for broader assortments outside of Nashville because Levy’s has broadened their assortment as well.”

One aspect of Levy’s that has been added in recent years is a women’s wear, which Ellen says is a struggle to convey to a public that has associated Levy’s with menswear for 156 years.

First introduced in the 80s with items created by their menswear designers, the manufacturers dropped the idea of women’s clothes in the 90s, and so did Ellen while she focused on raising their children. But in 2001, she brought it back with much more modern lines like Versace.

“We are constantly in the market looking for new and exciting things that you are not going to find in other places,” she says.

And while no new family members have shown an interest in continuing in the family tradition yet, (“There’s a couple still in high school,” David jokes,) David and Ellen and their 12 or so employees are showing no signs of slowing down. This year they plan on dabbling in e-commerce and increasing their online presence without losing focus on the little touches, like keeping their customers’ measurements on file or calling them when something that is just so “them” arrive.

“There is an interesting dichotomy in our business,” David explains. “Clients can access things by the Internet, but it is also a very hands-on business, a touchy-feely business.

“We still feel like our clients need us but on the same side, using technology to our clients benefit has really become more and more important to us. We invest heavily in technology to help clients get better service and better outcomes.”

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 0 0
MORTGAGES 0 0 0
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 0 0
BUILDING PERMITS 0 0 0
BANKRUPTCIES 0 0 0
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 0 0
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0