Kai Ryssdal: We're about at that time of year where we start to see high-schoolers around town wearing fancy dresses and just slightly ill-fitting tuxedos. Yes indeed, it's prom season. Most of the attention goes to the dresses. But a lot of the money goes to the tuxes. Once you get past the smaller formal wear shops, the tux rental business pretty much belongs to Men's Wearhouse. At least it has until now.
Jennifer Collins reports.
Jennifer Collins: Joseph A. Bank has been selling menswear for over a century. It has hundreds of stores. The name of the place still trips people up.
Charles Talbert: Every day you'll get somebody who comes in and says hey let's go to Jose Banks or Joe-Zay-Banks.
Charles Talbert is the manager of a Joseph A. Bank in a suburb of Los Angeles. The chain isn't exactly known as a mecca of hip fashion.
Talbert: We're extremely familiar to people as far as suits. In this respect, we want to kind of introduce ourselves to the young upstarts.
To do that, Joseph A. Bank is adding tuxedo rentals. This is its first prom season.
Stifel Nicolaus retail analyst Richard Jaffe says tux rentals may be one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get young shoppers into a chain known for suits and suspenders.
Richard Jaffe: The math is easy.
Chains pay about $150 for the tux. They rent it out for about $150 -- typically more than 10 times.
Jaffe: You're talking about a tremendous profit margin.
Tux rentals bring in about a billion dollars in the U.S. every year. And Men's Wearhouse has cornered about a third of that market. Maybe you're familiar with its slogan.
Men's Wearhouse Ad: You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.
I wanted to check out that guarantee. But first, I had to get past Men's Wearhouse Assistant Manager Mary Marshall -- she was pretty suspicious of my microphone.
Mary Marshall: I just don't want it to be from somewhere like Joseph A. Bank's spying on us. They're not doing very well in tuxedos.
Marshall, on the other hand, has been busy.
Marshall: Thirty-two waist.
Riley Donaldson: Am I fat?
Trim high school senior Riley Donaldson is being fitted for a tux he'll wear to his girlfriend Lisa Vitale's prom. She's here. And so is her dress.
Lisa Vitale: It's just white and long, and then it has like, rhinestone-y strap, that's like one strap.
Donaldson: It's bedazzled.
Vitale: It's bedazzled.
Now Donaldson needs a bedazzled tux to go with it.
Vitale: If I wasn't here, which one would you pick?
Donaldson: I'd call my mom. And I'd be like, mom, we got a situation...
Vitale: You're such a smart ass sometimes.
Donaldson: This one 'cause no else is gonna have that.
He picks a silver vest. Analyst Richard Jaffe says the store doesn't want the transaction to end there.
Jaffe: So they're trying to walk him over to the other department and say, gee, did you see the movie "Hangover?" Did you see what all the guys wore? Don't you want to look like them? Here we can make it possible.
AUDIO EXTRA: The story of Los Angeles residents Claudia Yanzon and her 17-year-old son Oscar Villanueva. Twenty years after Claudia graduated from high school, her son is going to prom at the very same location.
Jaffe says Men's Wearhouse and Joseph A. Bank may be going after each other, but it's the independent formal wear shops that really need worry.
Jaffe: It'd be much easier and much more likely that they would take market share from the regional players and the mom-and-pops.
After all, the store did have pretty much every thing Donaldson asked about.
Donaldson: Should I wear an ascot?
Vitale: If you want.
Donaldson: Come on, no one's gonna have an ascot. Or a cane?
OK, he didn't go with a cane, but he did go with a silver bow tie.
I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.