Tarek Hassan is looking ahead.
With almost a lifetime’s worth of experience at The Tannery, the co-owner and creative visionary for the Boston-based retailer and its streetwear-focused Concepts shop is drafting an outline for the company’s next 40 years — with store expansions, new locations and different channels all part of the plan.
“We’re not limited,” Hassan said. “We started with footwear, but when we knew there was something happening [in apparel], we went there. So if there’s something we believe in, we will not miss a beat. That’s what The Tannery is.”
Hassan, 43, has been changing the shape of The Tannery since he started in the stockroom as a college student. Then, after his first taste of shoe-buying at FFANY, he told his uncle, Sam Hassan, “I really want to be in the shoe business.”
Soon after, the younger Hassan started managing the Harvard Square location, and it wasn’t long before he saw an opportunity.
In the early 1990s, he recalled, his interest in skate- and snowboarding culture gave him an idea.
“My passion for the extreme-sport world and my passion for fashion and denim trends was something The Tannery didn’t have in Cambridge,” he said. “There was no room in the shop, but I said to myself, ‘If we got rid of all the bad shoes, I could make the stock smaller and then take the bigger [stockroom] space in the back of the store.’ So that’s when Concepts was born.”
Concepts, an area within the store with different music and a different look, opened in 1996 to sell skate shoes, denim and even snowboards. (See page 50 for an in-depth look at the Boston flagship.) And despite vendor naysayers who argued that you couldn’t sell snowboards in a comfort-shoe store, the business thrived. The Tannery learned a lesson it has been applying ever since: Change is good.
Central to The Tannery’s success, Hassan explained, is its unique buying strategy, where the consumer is not only a target but a resource to be tapped. “Studying trends and reports only gets you so far. So much of success depends on humanizing it [all],” he said.
Hassan and his staff spend as much time as they can in the stores, where they watch the brands and styles shoppers from all over the world wear to the store, and also quiz customers on their color, style and brand preferences.
“Trade shows are great, but they’re not nearly enough, honestly,” said the co-owner. “I’m a big believer that the next hot item or the next hot brand can be identified on the retail floor. I can’t stress enough how important it is for all our buyers to work the floor at all times.”
Buoyed by its buying strategy, The Tannery is looking to aggressively expand not only its physical locations but also its e-commerce business.
Today, the company has stores in several locations: the flagship at 711 Boylston St., a smaller store at 400 Boylston St., and the 39 Brattle St. shop in Cambridge. Concepts is now a standalone sneaker shop at 37 Brattle St. in Cambridge. Hassan said he has big plans for both nameplates.
The 711 Boylston location is slated for expansion, which could mean taking over the building’s fourth floor.
A longer-term goal — slated for the next four or five years — is Hassan’s vision for putting merchandise on all seven floors of the building (which the Hassans own, with tenants currently in the top floors). The extra space would enable them to expand their product offering with key vendors and add a lounge or bar space, transforming the shop into a real destination, Hassan said. And he hasn’t ruled out eventual forays into cosmetics, lingerie and home goods.
Online, the retailer is revamping its 4-year-old e-commerce site, creating three separate websites under one umbrella — one for each section within the 711 Boylston St. store: the outdoor-focused Wilderness Workshop in the basement, the core The Tannery comfort-and-luxury business on the main floor and the Concepts area on the second floor.
“The experience of browsing in our flagship store will be reflected in the new sites,” Hassan said.
Social-media efforts on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and other programs have been an effective way to reach customers as well as to keep up on trends, Hassan said, but they have also been a sales driver, especially for Concepts. “We put stuff on Instagram and the sales go click, click, click — it’s incredible how it works,” he said.
At Concepts — Hassan’s baby from the beginning — big changes are afoot as well.
The store has had a full-time design team for the past eight years. Tasked with creating the shop’s own apparel and accessories, as well as collaborations, the staff has grown from just one additional person to six full-time designers, and Hassan is looking to add more as the team starts to pursue new categories.
“We are open to anything and everything,” he said. “We see Concepts being broader than just footwear, accessories and clothing — we really could be a go-to for design. The sky is the limit at this point.”
In January, Concepts will open a two-week pop-up shop on Redchurch Street in East London, selling the store’s branded and collaboration merchandise.
“I am a big fan of pop-up shops — you go in there, you test the market and see how to work before you sell there,” Hassan said.
He noted that the store’s Web traffic suggested that Europe could be a promising market for Concepts, with London as a natural starting point. “We know that consumers are hungry for our products, and they believe in our direction and what we are doing,” he said. “So we said to ourselves, instead of them coming to us sometimes, we want to go to them, we want to be in their backyard.”
London is the only confirmed pop-up shop for now, but Hassan is interested in future tests — and future stores — in other cities both abroad and in the U.S.
“We are very much shopping the markets,” he said. “But we want to grow healthy [and] we want to grow smart. We don’t want to do it just because we want to do it.”
New locations are possible for the core The Tannery store as well, he said. New York, a market the Hassans have long been eyeing, is still on the list.
“Timing is everything for the business. New York is still an attraction that is close to my heart,” Hassan said. “I’ve got to do that one because that’s a place I’ve always dreamed of and wanted to be part of. We believe that when the opportunity comes, we will be ready for it.”
In the meantime, Hassan said, he’s focused on his business and staying one step ahead of competitors, who increasingly encompass a widening array of players.
“To be honest with you, we see everybody as a competitor, from the mom-and-pop store to the corporate department stores,” he said. “But I welcome them. We look at it from a much broader perspective nowadays. Relevancy is everyone’s biggest competition.”