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Talking Shop with Rodney Bridges, owner of Garber's
While many fashion trends have come and gone, Rodney Bridges' menswear store Garber's, located in the Town Plaza shopping center, has been a constant in Cape Girardeau for nearly 40 years. When Garber's opened, there were nine men's stores in the city and today it's the only one left.
Question: How did you become interested in working in the men's apparel business and how did you come to own Garber's?
Answer: In 1971, I went to work for Frank Hamra at Hamra's Men's Store in Anna, Ill. I had already worked retail at the local G.C. Murphy Co. dime-store since my 16th birthday. I was now 20. Mr. Hamra noticed my love of retail and expressed interest in "finding me a store" to manage. At this time he had several men's stores in the surrounding area. We found Garber's in Cape Girardeau was going to close due to Mr. Charles Garber's retirement. Mr. Hamra bought it and moved my new bride, Dimple, and me to Cape to manage it. I had just completed my degree in accounting at SIU-Carbondale. Less than a year later, Mr. Hamra was getting out of the business and found it necessary to sell all of his stores. Long story short, Dimple and I went downtown to the First National Bank and acquired an SBA loan with the help of then-president Mr. Richard Swaim to buy out Mr. Hamra, and as they say "the rest is history." Thankfully, I had always had a flair for fashion and loved working retail, so it seemed to be a natural fit. Besides, I was not a good accountant and immediately hired a good one.
Q: How has your business grown and changed over the years?
A: Over the past 39 years that Dimple and I have owned Garber's, the entire industry has changed tremendously. Over two expansions and four remodels, we have gone from 1,500 square feet to 4,300 square feet in size. In 1972, Cape was home to nine full service men's stores. We were "the new children on the block." Now we are the only ones left. In the '70s and '80s we carried all the familiar big names that you now see in the department stores and factory outlets. With the advent of all the "big box" stores coming to town, we found it necessary to shop the markets and bring in lines that are not shown everywhere. We knew that it was the only way to survive. Hence, we travel to six markets a year to bring the unique styles found in our store. Dimple is our visual merchandiser and does all of our window and in store displays and is also a great buyer. I can't imagine going to market without her.
Q: Is it challenging keeping up with the latest styles and trends?
A: Yes, it is challenging. But that is why we feel it is necessary to attend so many markets, to get an overall feel for the industry. It may take a year or more for the styles and fashions that are already shown on the East and West Coasts to be embraced by our local market. So, we do work closely with our salesmen and vendors and listen for guidance to new trends and styles that are on the way.
Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
A: The thing that I enjoy most are the people and the wonderful relationships that I have made over the years with our customers and vendors. We have been so blessed with a tremendously loyal customer following. It is most gratifying to be selling to the grandkids of customers who are still shopping with us from the early '70s. We know most of our customers by first name and like to build a Garber's Preferred Customer file on each one of them so that we can be more aware of the lines that they like and the sizes that they need. It is most helpful at Christmas and other holidays when their families are out shopping for them. I also enjoy making my own decisions, which will ultimately affect the future of the business. I strongly encourage any young people that I meet to consider going into their own business. I think that the future is wide open for growth to any business that is geared toward face to face customer service.
Q: Businesses today can quickly come and go. What factors have contributed to your businesses' longevity?
A: There are many. The base contributing factor would be the strong work ethic and Christian values that my mom and dad instilled in me at a very young age. They both worked their careers in the International Shoe Company, and always wanted better for their children. My dad strongly urged me not to work for retail but to own my own shop. Another strong factor contributing to Garber's longevity would be the committed employees that I work with. Vicki McKinney, Kathy Wright and Angela Madsen are great at customer relationships and are genuinely concerned about our customers' needs. And our tailor, Millie Pruitt, is priceless and second to none. Add all of that with a supportive wife who shares with you a strong Christian faith and how could you fail? We do give Him all the honor and glory for any success that we have enjoyed.
Q: What do you think is the secret to providing good customer service?
A: There is no secret. If so, I am happy to share mine with anyone who will listen. Fair prices, free gift wrapping, free shipping, free alterations. Always do what is right and how you would like to be treated, and never fail to let your customers know how much you appreciate their business