Who knew shopping for a sweater could be so strange?
On a bitterly cold evening a couple of Tuesdays ago, I found myself in a large, plain building on an otherwise empty lot in Williston, surrounded by a crew of rugged young men in three-piece suits. Frank Sinatra played over a sound system as the clean-cut posse peppered me with questions.
The fact that you're reading this is evidence I didn't get clipped, "Sopranos"-style. Nor was I drawn into any shadowy agency or cult. I was merely shopping for a sweater at the newly opened Men's Wearhouse in the big-box world that is Maple Tree Place.
My girlfriend Brooke and I had already searched several Burlington shops for a crewneck sweater. Admittedly, I'm not much of a clothes hound. I prefer simple, classic stuff in muted colors: black, dark brown or charcoal gray. But sometimes I swear I'm the only guy around who doesn't like racing stripes or ostentatious branding.
By the fifth store we stopped in, I was in full rant mode. Brooke suggested some new suit store in Williston as a last resort. I'd never even heard of the Men's Wearhouse. I hardly wanted to keep shopping, but I needed a goddamn sweater and wasn't ready to concede defeat.
Men's Wearhouse looks downright innocuous, if you disregard its ominously blacked-out windows. Upon arrival, we saw a well-dressed young gentleman smoking a cigarette in front of the door. Quickly extinguishing it, he escorted us inside. This seemed odd to me. What kind of wage-slave willingly cuts his smoke break short for a customer? Maybe he's the only guy working, I thought.
Wrong. There were nearly 10 employees inside, and not a single other customer. A few guys dressed in identical suits were enthusiastically tossing a Nerf ball back and forth. As we walked in, they practically fell over one another in a rush to assist us. "Did you guys come for the football game?" one of them asked, as his associates began circling. Brooke shot me an anxious glance.
Maybe they're just really bored, I thought, stifling an impulse to flee. It was 8 p.m., and it had probably been a slow day. Still, my adrenaline was flowing. I'd seen too many horror movies about sunlight-despising bloodsuckers to feel entirely comfortable. My mind raced back to the blacked-out windows. Was this the retail-outlet version of The Lost Boys?
"What's your dress-shirt size?" one of them asked.
"I honestly have no idea," was my clipped reply. They seemed to find this amusing.
Moving with uncanny rhythm, the salesmen pulled sweaters seemingly from nowhere. Forget about a "maybe" pile: As soon as I took a garment off, a platoon of folders tucked it back together and stashed it back on the shelves.
To my surprise, I found one I liked, but I couldn't decide on a color. "You can buy 'em both," the alpha employee said with a wide grin. Part of me wondered if it was a suggestion or a command. Making a bit of fidgety small talk, I purchased the sweater and we headed for the door. I hadn't even had a chance to put my coat back on when he dashed over to walk us out. For a second I thought he might accompany us to the car. "Thank you very much, and have a great night," he exclaimed from the sidewalk.
"Is it just me, or was that fucking intense?" I asked Brooke as we sped away.
"There was definitely a certain kind of energy in there," she replied.
I was already developing a few working theories. Maybe it was a Mafia front, or a retail extension of Scientology. Better check their website.
Perusing http://www.menswear  house.com provided more fodder for my imagination. Founded in 1973 by retailer George Zimmer, the company presents an official history that reads like a mercantile Pilgrim's Progress. In it, tales of cigar-box cash registers and sheer determination are spun in dated, folksy prose.
Elaborate theories on personal relations and inner development abound on the site. "At the Men's Wearhouse we believe that unleashing the human potential within companies, organizations, communities and families is good for every one of us," CEO Zimmer writes. "Our 'outer' relationships are driven by the quality of our 'inner' work environment. We all have a responsibility to contribute to the extended global society to which we all belong."
Pretty heady stuff. I was especially curious about "servant leadership," a key company concept. It reminded me a bit of Promise Keepers, an organization of Christian men with a spookily fervent commitment to family and community. The MW policy of offering financial rewards for getting friends to apply for jobs seemed like a "soft" recruitment strategy.
But try as I might, I couldn't find a single piece of evidence linking Men's Wearhouse to a specific spirituality. According to company writ, servant leadership is simply about choosing leaders who "enjoy helping others learn, achieve and grow as people." Hey, that didn't sound so bad.
But what about the game of Nerf football we interrupted? Surely management doesn't endorse goofing off. Actually, it turns out they do. The company "schedules time for play at every training meeting," and supplies stores with Nerf balls, ping-pong paddles, putters and golf balls. Managers are even encouraged to "invite a store team out to unwind after a long workday." Wonder who picks up the beer tab?
At least they know they're different. The website plainly states, "By building strong friendships in the workplace, we create a different feeling in our stores -- one that customers pick up on." I certainly did.
My investigation didn't stop there. The entry for George Zimmer at Wikipedia.com claims he's a recovering alcoholic who supports the legalization of both marijuana and MDMA -- street name Ecstasy -- for therapeutic purposes. Although Wikipedia has taken heat for some glaringly incorrect entries, in this case the claims were verifiable. An article in the St. Petersburg Times states that "Zimmer and his family" directed $15,000 to an MDMA research organization. Legal-studies website FindLaw.com reports that Zimmer has donated money to medical marijuana initiatives.
I was more surprised to learn of self-help guru Deepak Chopra's 2004 appointment to the MW board of directors. At the time, Zimmer shrugged off industry puzzlement, stating, "This is not some New Age flighty business model with false nobility and no sustainable earnings."
A couple of days into my research, I received a personally signed thank-you card from the Williston store. This seemed strange, considering I had only purchased one item -- marked down to $39. But the gesture inspired me to contact the company's executive headquarters in Freemont, California, to see if my experience was typical.
To my surprise, I was granted access to Dino Speranza, the 45-year-old senior VP of store operations. When I told him about my encounter, Speranza explained that I'd probably happened upon a training session, which would account for the odd staff-to-customer ratio.
Men's Wearhouse recently made the Forbes Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, which recognizes exemplary employers. "One of our primary goals is to create a really great work environment for people," Speranza says. "Part of it is training and the opportunity to grow your career. But it's also how you're treated. We feel you can be professional at work, but still have a relaxed environment where you can be yourself. And it's not unusual for customers to join in and putt a few balls."
Speranza says the company looks beyond work experience when hiring. "We want people who have the right kind of personality, energy and attitude," he explains. "It's more important to have someone that likes to interact with people, and is good at it. Our business is really about building good relationships with our customers, and each other."
In an era of zero training costs and replaceable staff, Men's Wearhouse has remarkably low turnover, even for entry-level positions. This could be because workers feel valued. Zimmer attempts to see each employee in person once a year, and the company frequently flies store managers to its California headquarters. There are more than 500 stores.
"It's a little bit of the reverse of the traditional boss-employee relationship," Speranza relates. "We believe if you're in a position of leadership and responsibility, that you're not just there to be successful yourself, but to help the people you work with be successful as well." It looks like they mean it: The company offers employees no-interest loans of up to $10,000 for unexpected expenses, as well as financial reimbursement for classes and workshops of personal or professional interest.
I was beginning to feel a bit foolish. There was probably nothing sinister about the place at all. Anyone who knows me is aware of my obsession with cults and conspiracies; perhaps I'd just gotten carried away. To settle things once and for all, I headed back to the store for a Saturday afternoon browse. I really liked the black sweater I had purchased, even though it wasn't a crewneck; maybe I could get one in brown.
My second experience was entirely different. Far fewer employees were working and, while they were still helpful and friendly, I didn't feel at all overwhelmed. Still, it probably helped that several other shoppers were in the store. Striking up a conversation with manager Rod Currier, I told him my fantastic tale. He seemed to think it was pretty funny. The best part? After I bought my sweater, I got to toss around a Nerf football.