For almost a century, Bates & Thigpen has steadily sustained its position in Baton Rouge’s ever-changing retail environment. Specializing in quality menswear, the business has retained its original values of personalized customer service starting with a handshake at the door and ending with custom onsite alterations when needed. The business, now owned by Bradley Bates Jr., is emerging into its fourth generation in the Bates family, with his son Brad joining the team a few years ago. In an early-morning interview, Bradley shared with inRegister details about the business and its products, as well as what he believes has made Bates & Thigpen successful in Baton Rouge for the past 93 years.
1.What is a typical day like at Bates & Thigpen?
Our hours are 9 to 5 every day Monday through Friday, which is rare for retail business. However, we’re also often here early doing bookwork and different odds and ends in the back, so we get phone calls from people that someone forgot a tie or needs a shirt or a belt or socks or so on. Sometimes we have a customer who works the same hours as ours, so they’ll call and say they need a suit for Friday, and I say I’ll meet you over here at 7 a.m. So we do that kind of stuff. Also, through the day we sell a lot of uniforms for the EMS and various small police and fire departments who tend to drop in a lot. It’s the service that makes that happen. Most of our clients that come through that door have come to buy something, not to shop. So it’s different than a mall store where you get a lot of traffic but you may have not made a sale. Our customers come in, they know what you’ve got, and they buy it and leave.
2. How did you get into the business of selling menswear?
My grandfather started this business in 1924. My daddy took over and then my uncle took over. When I was out of high school and going to LSU, I came in. My first job was at a service station making a dollar an hour. Then I finally started working here. Everyone in our family–my cousins, my sister– we all had an opportunity to work here. It’s just something that I stuck with. It’s been very good to me. At some point my uncle retired and I bought him out. So then it was my daddy and myself for about 40 years. It really is a rare opportunity to get to work with your father for that long. Now he’s deceased, but my son now works here with me, a fourth generation coming in. No job is perfect, but this is a people kind of thing. It’s enjoyable when you meet people you wouldn’t normally meet. That’s the reward that comes out of this.
3. What are the first things customers see when they walk through the door?
People who have never been here before are often surprised to see that we have hats right by the front. They’re the real beaver fur, felt hats that you can’t get anywhere else in town. We’ve sold them for many years. As customers walk through the store, they’ll see the tie rack or the shirt rack. They’ll go past our pants and suits that we have all the way down the wall here; they’ll browse. But again, most customers coming here have a target. While they’re buying a pair of pants, though, they might realize, I need a belt. Or think, well, that is a pretty tie! So it just goes from there.
4. What sets your store apart from other stores in the area?
Our service. The things that we do. The alterations that we do at the rate that we do them. You don’t need a suit next month, you need it this week. If we can hem the pair of pants while you’re here, we do it. And we’ll be the first to tell you, “The sleeves are too long on that coat; they need to be altered.” It goes back to the experience. We want customers to have a good time when they come to buy something special like a suit.
When I first came to work here, an old man came in and I introduced myself to him. He said, “You know I’ve been trading with your grandfather for 50 years.” He told me a story about when he was going to LSU. There was a dance coming up and he saw a pair of shoes in the window of my grandfather’s store for about $7. My grandfather came out and said, “Son, can I help you?” He responded, “Mr. Bates, I’m just looking at your shoes. There’s a dance coming up, but I can’t quite afford them right now.” My grandfather told him to come in and talk about it. They tried the shoes on, and my grandfather told him, “Well, give me a little bit now and just pay as you go.” The man said, “Well, I’m getting ready to go into the military for the war.” My grandfather said, “Well just send me a little from there or pay me when you get back.” He said, “Mr. Bates, I might not be coming back.” Then my grandfather crossed his arms and said, “Well, then that’s the least I can do for you.” Stories after stories after stories like that pile up. It’s a personal relationship we build with people here.
5. What is something people should about Bates & Thigpen that they might not be aware of?
A lot of people think that we are high priced. It’s a perception. We’re not. I know from looking around that we are competitive. Now, I can’t beat a box store, but they may beat me by around $2 on a shirt. I’m not gouging anyone. But again, we never played the game of “let’s double the price and then when the sale comes we’ll drop the price.” People know that when they walk out of here, tomorrow that suit’s not going to be half price. It’s about trust.
We don’t get into the high, high class. Our clothes are in the $350 range for American-made products from a family-owned company. It’s rare to be able to get suits from someone like that for that price. My clientele would not pay $1,000 for a suit. My clientele won’t pay $100 for a tie. We don’t sell a $150 pair of pants. Our clientele and customers are more of a working-class group who wear a pair of pants every day, not just on Sunday. They need five different colors, and that’s their uniform for the week.
A lot of people just don’t know what we have, either. We have pretty much everything from hats to shoes.
6. How do you keep inventory up to date?
When you go to market and to shows, the salesmen will bring stuff in and show you something a little new every time.The fashion kind of does it itself. It just happens. Years ago when I started, ties were really thin, then they went to really wide. Then they came back. Lapels were skinny skinny and they moved to the shoulders as times changed. But a charcoal gray suit is a charcoal gray suit. And people will always want the classics. They want new things too. We used to bring back madras plaid sport coats and leisure suits. And those sold like hot cakes because people wanted something new. Now everything has kind of stabilized with the fashions.
7. How would you describe the aesthetic of your products?
We’re pretty conservative and stable and basic. We don’t go for the high fashion. Right now in the winter we sell a topcoat that’s all wool/cashmere. It’s the same topcoat we’ve sold for 10 years, and it’s beautiful and reasonable. It is fine and lasts for a long, long time. It is just a very basic, conservative business.
8. What is the story of Bates & Thigpen’s origins?
He and Mr. Thigpen worked for a department store. Back then, everything was downtown. This was everything. Beauregard Town and Spanish Town were the neighborhoods downtown. Anything else was way out. Florida Street turned into a dirt road. So all the shopping was done here. There weren’t a lot of cars. People could walk most places down here. He and Mr. Thigpen left the department store and decided they would open their own shop. Eventually my grandfather bought Mr. Thigpen out of his share.There were lots of little stores down here. They just continued to develop. We were across the street where Huey’s is until 1965. So that’s where it began.
As downtown moved out, a lot of retailers started chasing strip stores, then shopping centers, then the mall, then the other mall. It drove business to where it wasn’t so concentrated down here. But my grandfather chose to stay. The city stayed on one end and the state department stayed on the north side. Every major bank at that time had a tower. All of the first churches were down here. All the courts were down here. We still had the people. We lost the shoppers, but we still had the guy who showed up to the office, forgot he had to go to court today, forgot his coat. We’re kind of unique. I’m sure we’re the oldest in Baton Rouge, so somewhere along the line we did something right. You can’t be everything to everybody. You’ve got to find your niche and stay in it.
9. What are some must-haves for this winter season?
We always sell a lot of dark colors in the winter. We used to sell tweed suits, thick bulky wool coats and wool pants, but back then your air conditioners and heaters weren’t as efficient in your cars, your house and your office. The banks, any place you would go now—you don’t need the extreme. We don’t have extreme weather like in other places. We keep people in a certain standard wardrobe. When it gets cold we can sell hats, we can sell jackets. We are such a complete store, you know. We sell socks, shoes, belts, underwear, hats, coats, top coats, jackets, suspenders, wallets–all of it.
10. What are some of your best-selling items?
Well, we mostly sell suits, but we sell a lot of ties. You buy a new tie for your suit and you feel like you’ve bought a new suit. Wives will buy ties for their husbands. Hats again, believe it or not–because we are the only shop in town that sells the beaver hats, those do really well. We also sell a lot uniform wise. The Baton Rouge Fire Department buys all their pants from us. That’s 1,400 pairs of pants. And EMS, the girls the guys, the unit commanders—that’s probably close to 200 EMS employees.