Last August, sorority rush at the University of Alabama exploded on TikTok with Greek letters, glitter, and teenage girls explaining their #OOTD, or outfit of the day. The videos generated millions of views as people watched new college students share carefully curated ensembles for each round of the recruitment process–name-dropping well-known brands like Shein, Target, Kendra Scott, Kate Spade, and Steve Madden. But one unfamiliar name kept getting mentioned: the Pants Store.
Founded as a wholesale warehouse for pants in 1950 in Leeds, Alabama, the Pants Store is a third-generation family business run by Michael Gee, whose grandfather started the company out of the trunk of his car. Not being a TikTok user, Gee had no idea his business had gone viral on the platform last year. It was his then-14-year-old daughter who told him. In just one week, online sales soared by more than 600 percent year-over-year. Orders from out of state–particularly from other college towns–skyrocketed.
“It went wild,” says Gee, who runs the retailer’s six locations across Alabama with his brother John Gee. “It was crazy.”
To keep up with demand for the company’s products, which expanded beyond trousers many years ago, Gee brought in employees from the company’s Birmingham location to the store in Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama is located. Like many other small businesses, the retailer was understaffed prior to going viral on social media. Sales didn’t slow down when sorority rush ended, however, and 2021 marked a record year for the business with online orders shipped to all 50 states. Annual revenue is up in 2022, despite 40-year-high inflation and recession fears.
The internet has been eagerly awaiting the second season of Alabama RushTok. Sorority recruitment kicked off this past weekend, and the topic has already racked up over one billion views on TikTok. The rush process will culminate in bid day, when new members are granted an invitation to join their respective sororities, on Sunday, August 14. This year, the Pants Store is prepared, according to Gee. “We’ve got a much fuller staff,” he says, adding that he’s already seen an uptick in sales. “We have better inventory.”
Here are three of Gee’s tips for maintaining internet-fueled momentum and how to capitalize on the spotlight in the age of TikTok.
Delegate social media to digital natives
Gee admits that he was not very social media savvy when the Pants Store went viral, but as a business owner, he knew the company needed to take advantage of the attention. “When you’ve been around for 73 years,” he says, “you have to adapt.” He lets his younger employees take the reins when it comes to social media, and today the brand has a two-person social media team to keep its feeds fresh with multiple posts a day. “I’m good at certain things, but they’re definitely better than I am,” Gee says. “That’s the world they live in.”
The Pants Store’s active presence has garnered nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram and over 41,000 followers on TikTok. Before getting name-dropped on RushTok, Gee says the Pants Store only had about 3,000 followers on TikTok. Overnight, their follower count jumped to 25,000.
For the past six weeks, the Pants Store has been promoting sorority rush across all platforms. Employees can be seen styling new merchandise, stocking up on the “rush bag essentials” that potential new members carry between houses, and even performing some retail-inspired workouts–lacing up their sneakers and doing pushups, jumping jacks, and stretches in preparation for the RushTok sales surge. In one recent TikTok, which has been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times, the branded green and white Pants Store van drives past the row of University of Alabama sorority houses through crowds of cheering fans. His advice to other business owners is simple: Don’t be afraid to delegate. “You have to trust your people and go with it,” he says.
Build a customer-friendly website that can handle a flood of traffic
When the millions of people enjoying RushTok started searching online to find out if the Pants Store really sold more than just pants, its website handled the surge of traffic and orders without any hiccups or crashes. Gee had already invested in e-commerce when Covid-19 forced the company’s six brick-and-mortar locations to close.
“That’s one of the only good things that came out of our store closures and the pandemic,” says Gee, who contracted a Birmingham, Alabama-based company to revamp the website. “When this TikTok sensation did hit, we were ready for that.”
Eighty percent of sales still come from in-store purchases, but that 20 percent share of online sales is continually growing, says Gee. Compared with the six stores, the Pants Store website ranks number three in sales. By 2023, Gee expects the website to improve to second place overall. Despite its success, Gee still sees the website as a work in progress. The team keeps tweaking and fine-tuning its presentation with plans for a complete overhaul in the next few weeks. He recommends selecting a partner with deep experience in your industry. “Just because a company builds a website,” he says, “it doesn’t mean that they’re retail-friendly.”
Don’t expand for expansion’s sake
In three weeks, the Pants Store will open a seventh location in Auburn, Alabama, the namesake home of the state’s other major public university, which means Gee will have to keep an eye on two schools for next year’s rush. Despite a brand that seems like it would translate easily to other college towns, Gee has no plans to expand outside of the state and is wary of growing too big, too fast.
“We want to stay true to who we are,” says Gee. “When you get too big, sometimes I think you lose sight of who you are you trying to be.”
Even with the Pants Store’s viral success, Gee has not forgotten an important piece of advice passed down from his father. Morris “Mickey” Gee, who took over the business from his own father in 1968, taught classes in marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s school of business, and retired in 2006, always told him, “Stay small. Don’t get too big for your britches.”
“We want to be careful,” says Gee. “We’re third generation. We don’t want to take any missteps and sink the ship.”