Smile Politely

Looking back while moving forward

Before you even step foot into Jos. Kuhn & Co. something will catch your eye. Two photos span the length of twelve windows on the second floor. One is of sports legend Red Grange modeling a suit, the other of WCIA’s Mr. Roberts trying on hats. Street-level windows display formal wear under the delicate glow of recently installed colored lighting. The store is proud of its past but committed to the future, a philosophy that has proved beneficial as Jos. Kuhn & Co. has been in business for nearly 150 years.

In 1865, Joseph Kuhn constructed The Emporium. The city of Champaign, only five years established at the time, grew alongside the store before a fire in 1872 burned the building to the ground. Kuhn wouldn’t be deterred as he then built Star Clothing House in the exact same location. By 1907, the business had prospered to such an extent that Isaac Kuhn, Joseph’s son, felt confident enough to change the store’s name and later build the four story building that Joseph Kuhn & Co. still operates out of today.

Four generations of Kuhns have seen their ancestor’s business persist through our nation’s toughest economic times. North Prospect, the mall, and campustown attract customers away from downtown. And costly meters and limited customer parking make visiting the store an inconvenience for some. So what’s been the company’s secret?

For store manager Gordon Tracey, 60, the answer is simple. “We continue to, I feel, have the best customer service in the area.”

Tracey went on to describe the self-service aspect of major department stores that has now made its way into smaller, family-owned establishments. What the employees of Jos. Kuhn & Co. strive to do is maintain a quality, personal service for their customers that extends beyond the confines of the store itself.

“What keeps us relevant is always finding something new and different in both brand and style,” Tracey said.

The manager travels to four different clothing shows each year — two in Chicago and two in Minneapolis. In about six weeks Tracey will be at the Chicago Collective, a four-day-long event that showcases everything from jeans to suits. Ultimately, the manager will have to make the calls on which brands and styles to bring back to his customers. Tracey embraces the task: “The customers we get are looking for a better product. I like being able to take care of people in the way I really feel like they should be taken care of.”

Many of the regulars experience that feeling of being “taken care of” based on items available at Jos. Kuhn & Co. that are not exactly related to just the fine wool suits and knit sweaters.

Tracey realizes this and keeps a sharp eye out for the non-traditional accessories presented at the clothing shows he attends.

“We carry a lot of things that other stores don’t because they think it’s a bother,” Tracey explained. “For instance, we always get a good response to our hats. We always get a good response to our pajamas and robes.”

Most of the store’s back wall on the first floor is devoted to hats of all shapes and sizes, and Jos. Kuhn & Co. is the only place in town where men can find a pair of silk pajamas or a silk robe.

Even the umbrellas, held together by a cast iron stand well over half a century old, are unique. Pointing to their black handles, Tracey said, “These umbrellas are vented. Normally if you’re caught in the wind, the umbrella will turn inside out. That won’t happen with these.”

A pair of shiny cufflinks, adorned with basketballs, sits in the display case near the front register waiting for an enthusiast, while a brand of socks specially crafted for diabetics sits on a rack next to a few pairs designed for athletes.

“These have always been interesting to me,” Tracey said, taking two elastic bands out of a plastic box. “They call them shirt stays. One end clips to the bottom of a shirt and the other piece goes all the way down the leg and attaches to the sock.” Members of the military and local police force come in for this item. Jos. Kuhn & Co. is one of the few places that carries such a product.

“Many of our customers will come in for something like socks or the shirt stays,” Tracey said. “Then they’ll take a look around and maybe find a shirt. These things can’t be found in other stores.”

Some customers want clothing or clothing accessories made in the United States. “We have sweaters and shirts that are made here in the U.S.,” Tracey said. “Essentially all of our belts are made here. A few of the socks we have are made in the United States, and we also now do special orders of a type of shoe made in Wisconsin.”

The store’s Big and Tall selection is also a major selling point. “It’s hard for big and tall guys to find quality clothing sometimes,” Tracey said. “They may find their size, but to find quality, we try to give them that.”

Jos. Kuhn & Co. has also recently added a line of shaving products from Truefitt & Hill. “That company is over 205 years old,” Tracey said.

Though the layout, decoration, and even service of the store might seem old fashioned to a new customer, the way the management operates at Jos. Kuhn & Co. is definitely progressive. “Just because it’s an older store doesn’t mean we’re just sitting here back in time,” Tracey said. “We’re keeping up with different types of media.”

The company has a Facebook page and has joined with a group of local businesses that offer discounts through an application called Center City Perks. Available to mobile device users, this app offers specials for stores located downtown, midtown, and in campustown.

Already underway is Jos. Kuhn & Co.’s summer clearance sale. All sportswear, various slacks, casual dress shirts, as well as some formal dress shirts will all be 30% off.

“It all comes back to customer service,” Tracey said. “I’ve been in retail for 40 years, and I really feel like there’s almost a lost art as far as customer service is concerned.” The formula at Jos. Kuhn & Co., a mixture of old and new, seems to be working. “We get several people that come in to the store and tell us how happy they are that we’re still here.”


All photos by Eric Ponder. Used with permission.

Related Articles