When Erik Sward sits down with sales representatives who have clothes samples or swatches to show him, one of his customers typically comes to mind.
“I’ll look at a piece of clothing and think, ‘Well, that’s this person right here,’” Sward said.
He’ll generally take a picture and text it to the customer, and before long, that piece usually makes its way to the showroom floor of Bell & Sward, an upscale men’s clothing store in downtown Conway.
It’s the relationships, customer service and in-store experience that Sward believes sets him apart and has made Bell & Sward a staple of downtown for eight years. That, and a carefully crafted sales approach that Sward believes caters specifically to men.
“We strive for a relaxed shopping experience,” Sward said. “A lot of men don’t like shopping. Granted, there are plenty that do, but there are more who do not.”
Because of that, Sward said patrons can expect a warm welcome and to be allowed to roam the store unbothered and find shirts from the likes of Peter Millar, johnnie-O and Mizzen+Main, or jeans from AG and Paige, or a pair of Martin Dingman shoes, among other items.
“We’re warm and inviting,” he said. “We don’t want you to feel like someone is following you around the store trying to sell you something.”
Sward had the idea for a store soon after he and his wife moved back from Little Rock in 2013. Within a few months, he’d contacted people to get his idea rolling. Later the same year, he made his first trip to a market in Dallas to buy clothes. In March 2014, Bell & Sward opened its doors.
Sward’s mother-in-law, Zanette Bell, was a partner with him as he started the business and continued in that role until earlier this year.
“We learned from each other on the fly,” said Sward, who mentioned neither of them had a background in retail. “She’s the most important part of our success. Without her, I wouldn’t have made it. We’ve been able to bounce ideas off each other, argue with one another and then figure out a solution.”
Another important figure in the early days was Lori Quinn, who had previous experience with running a men’s clothing store in downtown.
“I don’t know if we would have followed through with the idea, without Lori,” Sward said. “She was more than willing to sit down with us and really helped get us started.”
Sward said he never expected his store to grow to what it has become today.
“You obviously set lofty goals and dream that it could be this good, but you’re aware there’s a decent chance you won’t get there and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “The success we’ve had has been overwhelming.”
Sward said he’s most proud of the connections he’s been able to make with customers and vendors.
“When I moved to Conway in 2013, I didn’t know anyone other than a couple family members and a few friends,” he said. “Some of my best friends I’ve met through the store, whether that be a customer or a vendor.”
He also takes pride in the fact he’s been able to produce University of Central Arkansas shirts through two of his in-store brands — Peter Millar and johnnie-O.
“Those brands have typically only done Power 5 schools, so to get UCA logos embroidered was cool,” he said. “It just gives an elevated feel for UCA fans and students who want something different than your typical sports polo shirt.”
The fact Peter Millar and johnnie-O, among others, choose to sell their lines in his store is another point of pride for Sward.
“Peter Millar had not opened an account in five years when they opened with us, and we’re one of a select few in the state outside of a country club,” he said. “It shows they believe in what we’re doing and want to have their product in our store.”
Sward still hears regularly from his customers that his store has allowed them to stay in Conway and shop for clothes they love, which Sward always appreciates.
“Conway has a good strong set of boutiques that serve our community and we’re lucky to be part of that,” he said. “I think it really sets us apart, and not only that, it helps bring people from surrounding areas to our community.”