Today, shit is getting real. I could not be happier to have Erica Windle, co-owner of North Carolina lingerie boutique A Sophisticated Pair, on the blog today for a conversation with me about the hard realities of lingerie retail.
Erica has been an enormous encouragement, both personally and professionally, though Bluestockings' first year of business, and I'm so grateful to her for coming on the blog to get real about what goes on behind the register.
Erica at her shop!
What are some of the major misconceptions your customers have about underthings?
Erica: Price, price, and more price. Because so many large scale retailers engage in inflationary pricing, many of our customers automatically believe we are unfairly increasing the cost of our products above and beyond their worth, and as a result, they constantly ask for sales, discounts, and coupons. In reality, as we both know, markups in the lingerie industry are usually low, and retailers are tasked with stretching a meager profit margin to cover all the expenses of running a business in addition to, hopefully, expanding the products and services they offer. Customers buying bras on sale or at a discounted price hurt lingerie stores’ ability to increase profit, which in turn pushes back expansion plans for new lines and products, forces retailers to scale back inventory, and in some cases, results in a business closing permanently—all of which end up hurting the customer long term.
Nubian Skin's (ethically made) Essential T-Shirt Bra retails at $49 and is one of the cheapest bras Bluestockings stocks. Note the solid color and lack of frills, lace, and accoutrement - all of which would add to the cost.
Jeanna: To Erica’s epically brilliant point about pricing, I would add that there are a lot of misconceptions about what is feasibly available, product wise. I’m often asked to bring in products that I just can’t afford, because if folks are only buying on sale, I don’t have the cash flow to bring new stuff in. Stuff has to sell before new stuff comes in. That’s how this works.
But also, I hear a lot of wild requests for products that just don’t exist, e.g. “I want underwear that is guaranteed to not ride up” or “I want something that’s not a binder but not a bra, either.” And, to echo Erica’s point, everyone always wants the most luxurious, but also eco-friendly, but also indestructible, but also size-inclusive garment for the lowest price. Like, this stuff does not exist.
With lingerie, you can get the style you want, the fit you want, or the price you want - but 99.9% of the time, you can only get two.
Do you think this is related to the type of store you operate? (brick and mortar vs. online)
Jeanna: Absolutely. My target audience is definitely niche and is used to not having their needs met. Usually, I can help them; sometimes, I can’t. In the instances a customer walks away, it’s often due to my own financial limitations as a small, independent store thats survival is entirely dependent on my customers - which is to say, someone wants an item that’s out there, but Bluestockings doesn’t have it because we’re on a shoestring budget.
But just as often, folks walk away unsatisfied precisely because they are disappointed that some highly specific garment hasn’t been made (e.g. a bra/binder hybrid?), or they refuse to accept that “pick 2 of 3” idea (e.g. they want everything, and they want it at Target prices).
Danae's TSV Strapless Binder has been one of the most popular options at Bluestockings because it offers a sleeveless option for binders - however, without sleeves and with a small band, the compression isn't as high as a traditional tank binder. There are always trade-offs in design.
Erica: From speaking with other store owners both brick and mortar and online, I think price is a constant sticking point for everyone. A customer and I were chatting one day about pricing because I had asked in a survey question about sales, and she said she was a big proponent of businesses not putting anything on sale, especially small shops, because, to quote her “once people pay a sale price on something they never want to pay full price again.” She was absolutely correct! Frequent sales drag retailers into a cycle of trying to compete on price or to engage customers with coupons and promotions rather than on the basis of the services offered. I think pricing competition transitions the focus of any business into being about price rather than about value.
How does your behind-the-scenes interaction with brands affect what you carry - or don't carry?
Jeanna: As a small retailer on a shoestring budget who exclusively stocks independent brands, my relationships are everything. In this, the business relationship enters into the buying decision: I’m much more likely to order from folks who I trust and have good working relationships with than I am to try someone new. The process of building trust between independents when it comes to payment terms alone is a huge factor here, as well as the fact that brands I’ve ordered from often are willing to let me bend the minimum order rules since they know Bluestockings is small and that I’m good for a re-order.
Obviously, slow (or non-existent) sales can’t make up for a strong working relationship. But this also means that if a brand is difficult to work with, I have absolutely no problem putting all of their stock on sale and ending the relationship.
At this stage in Bluestockings’ life, I feel tremendously lucky to have built relationships with other indies (who I stock here) -- all run by other super smart girlbosses who “get it” and who extend a lot of patience and a lot of love to each other. Also, some of us are talking about collaborating on some really rad projects this year. So stay tuned!
My love affair with Claudette (both the bras + the founders) is well documented at this point. See: their signature bra, the Dessous - a personal favorite and one I unabashedly promote. Like right now. Meta.
Erica: Behind-the-scenes interactions with brands are exceptionally important, but they sadly do not always have an impact. If a brand is easy to work with but their products do not perform well for the store, whether because of fit issues, pricing, or aesthetic style, then I cannot justify carrying them. However, I try to keep the line of communication open because brands often improve over time and a store’s demographics can shift too.
Likewise, we have some brands, usually the larger powerhouses, which create migraine-inducing problems. Literally. They have given me migraines. These problem children will drop orders, apply payments to the wrong accounts, not respond to emails, etc. However, the products they make are so vital to the success of our business that we have no choice but to put up with them. Nevertheless, if you are hard to work with, amazing products or not, I will actively find ways of not working with you. It’s just that simple.
Outside of common courtesy issues, I also find that a company with immediate terms agreements are higher up on my list. I mentioned in a blog I wrote awhile back that if I already have an existing relationship with a company, it is easier to bring in new products because I have breathing room to sell them before being required to pay the balance. If we need to import a product, reasonable shipping costs can also impact whether we carry a brand in the future.
How do you manage the tension between customer demands with what actually sells in your shop?
Erica: Hah, carefully and with intermediate success! I’ve gotten better over time, but it’s really challenging because I think consumers think of products from their perspective only. I know I did when we first opened which is why I had lots available in my size (a size we see very infrequently) and why we went a little crazy with fashion (basics are the core of our business).
I think it is human nature to think people will think like you do, but as we’ve been open longer and have more sales history to analyze, I’ve fine-tuned what we carry. I think the hardest part for me is finding that balance between giving customers what they want and realizing that some of their demands are not feasible on a large scale.
As you know, there can also be the added layer of complexity where demands, even frequent ones, are not covered by your existing vendors, which leaves you scrambling to find someone else who can fulfill them. Bringing in new vendors is a separate problem onto itself as you have to determine if they will sell to you, what kind of pricing and minimum order structure they employ, whether they offer terms, etc. Sometimes this works out fantastically, but in other cases, it’s hard to find a good, quality product you can support.
I think the biggest step we have made in finding that balance is knowing when to say “No” or even “Wait.” Anyone who is passionate about their business wants to go above and beyond customer expectations to give them whatever they want, but it’s important to know when to take a step back and realize your ability to continue operating depends on sales.
Jeanna: I want to repeat what you just said, Erica: “Anyone who is passionate about their business wants to go above and beyond customer expectations to give them whatever they want, but it’s important to know when to take a step back and realize your ability to continue operating depends on sales.” This has, far and away, been my biggest lesson this year.
When Bluestockings opened, I was way too trigger happy with orders. In an effort to be representative and size-inclusive, I opened with too much inventory and responded to demands for plus size underthings far too quickly. I think I did the opposite of what you did: I went for core (it was 80% of my opening inventory) but spread myself far too thin when it came to size representation. I remember talking with some friends who owned a local brick and mortar boutique and telling them what I was opening with - 28-42 bands, A-G cups - and they just raised their eyebrows. Now, I understand their skepticism.
The vital lesson when it comes to customer demands is that you can’t please everyone - and you will never please everyone . For someone coming into the industry trying to make a difference on the basis of representation, this is a bit of a heartbreaking lesson to learn. But Bluestockings’ survival is far more important to me than constantly making new orders to bring in new styles that would jeopardize us financially.
Erica, you sell on Amazon (through A Sophisticated Pair's online presence). What is your impression of Amazon Intimates? What has your experience been like working with them?
Erica: I have deeply mixed, hypocritical emotions regarding Amazon. On the one hand, I personally avoid shopping there as much as I can because I think Amazon is changing the entire way we shop and interact—and not for the better. Amazon has encouraged people to chase the best price, ordering from an online behemoth rather than support local stores (even big chains) which in turn support the community.
Furthermore, Amazon can also be deeply exploitative of their third party sellers by using profits made from their sales to mitigate losses on Amazon’s own deep discounting or by data mining best-sellers from other businesses and then selling those same products at a lower price. Amazon also firmly believes the buyer is right in most situations, often placing severe penalties on sellers for mild issues.
That said, when I was extremely ill, we went through a period where we nearly closed. My inconsistent hours drove customers away, and existing customers were trying to give me space to recover (which was admirable) but it inadvertently created a situation where we were barely hanging onto everything. Amazon sales were the only thing that saved us.
Our relationship began with Amazon a few years ago when they approached us about becoming a third party seller, and we decided to pursue the option because we had excess, underperforming inventory we hoped would sell there. Amazon provided us an outlet for these bras, and as our reputation grew, we were able to snag “the buy box” more on other inventory too. Overall, our experience selling on Amazon has been largely positive (outside of some interesting return requests), but I hope that as we continue to improve our online store and boost local marketing that we can rely on it less and less.
What is the biggest thing you can't talk about publicly as a retailer that you wish you could talk about as a retailer?
Erica: As someone who decided early on to be more transparent with entrepreneurship and issues faced by retailers, my initial response to this question was: “Nothing! For better or worse, I talk about everything.”
Then I realized that while I do write about many topics, there is an emotional battleground looming behind every post that I am forced to conceal, to mitigate, and to ultimately make more palatable for our readers. It is the core of small business ownership and so overly simple it hardly seems difficult to grasp: how damn hard it is to own and run a small business. With every “Retailer’s Perspective” post I write, I am constantly withholding the immense level of fortitude, passion, and commitment it takes to run a small business—how hard it was to even open; how taxing the overall strain can be emotionally, physically, and psychologically; how much you personally sacrifice for the success and well-being of the business; how hard it is some days to keep going forward; how devastating the setbacks can be; how ungrateful some of your customers are; how much personal financial hardship you can experience by being a small business owner; how soul-crushingly devastating it is when you spend a lot of time with a customer only to have them ask for discounts or to shop elsewhere; how at the end of the day, your feet are bruised and swollen; how you never get vacations or days off; how much you want to quit sometimes.
In the last year, I have seen or heard of at least five brick and mortar lingerie stores closing whether because the stores themselves did not make enough money or because the owners were not making enough to live on long term. I hear constantly how people think there should be more bra fitting shops, but in reality, there will only be fewer and fewer unless people begin supporting them consistently. To persevere through the challenges requires an intense desire to help people, to make their lives a little bit better, and it’s that commitment which pushes all of us forward through the bad days and hard times. But at the end of the day, a business owner can’t eat a “thank you” or pay their rent with a hug.
All I want to do is pay my bills and romp around in this sheer robe
Jeanna: I literally cried reading what Erica wrote. It is so true. So I’ll just echo what Erica said - transparency is something I strive for (and in this, I am indebted to Erica for blazing the trail), but it has to be the “right” kind of transparency. There is so much behind the curtain folks don’t know - probably for the better, but sometimes, on my bad days, it’s easy to resent customers for not understanding how fucking hard this is, and why I can’t stock everything, and why your bra/binder hybrid doesn’t exist, and why independent stores can’t offer the same return/exchange policy as Amazon, and why sales are actually the devil because a business cannot survive selling items on clearance. And most of all, why one store can’t be all things to all people, and why can’t we look at the system that has set us up for failure rather than turning in on each other?
To end on a slightly positive note - I will add that there are so many beautiful, intensely personal things customers share with us that we can't talk about, just out of respect for folks' privacy. Obviously, I don't want to go off talking about someone's personal life, but when someone sends you an email or a picture and explains how much your business is making a difference in their life... like, that doesn't pay the bills, but damn. It makes me want Bluestockings to get to that more financially secure place, because I can see the difference it's making.
P.S. Follow Erica's shop, A Sophisticated Pair, on Facebook!
P.P.S. Make sure you're signed up for Bluestockings' email list - since April is our birthday month, there are lots of special offers coming your way!