The Retailer Problem and What Consumers Can Do About It

Part II of my response to Holly at The Lingerie Addict. Here’s her post again.

This is where I calm down (mostly) and take a serious look at the sobering market insight that emerged for me as a result of this post.

What happened was that an astute early commenter called out the brands Holly featured for not doing more — not going further than G or GG. She made the same point in response to my own post on defining “full-bust brand,” which, essentially, consisted of an apologia for brands that stop at G. And, she’s not wrong. As far as unmet needs, prevalence, differentiation, all kinds of metrics, the full-bust market barely gets started by G. I still maintain, mind you, that stepwise is bestwise in making progress. I know. It’s morally unsatisfying. Strategy is a crafty business, OK? Its house is Slytherin and its god is Loki. But we can never lose sight of the big picture. And yes, getting the needs of cups over G properly served does matter. It matters a great deal.

Here’s the thing about this whole issue, though.

Because The Lingerie Addict is an awesome and powerful social media platform, with a million times more clout than my little babyblog (I haven’t even optimized social media strategy yet no time blah blah blah excuses excuses), Claudette actually responded to that comment.

And what Claudette said highlights one of the most important roadblocks any brand faces in entering full-bust.

For all except the best educated shoppers — who mail-order their bras, from Poland if necessary — there is a middleman standing between the brand and its end customer. The ultimate or end customer is the woman who buys the bra. But the brand’s immediate customer is the retailer: the bra boutique owner, the department store. And both have to be on board for the bra to sell. Which makes market shaping — eliciting the need into which you can sell the offering — a very complicated problem for an aspirant full-bust brand: education needs to happen on two levels at once, and if either lags, it can and will hold back the other.

It’s not just the full-bust bra shopper that’s got to become aware, first of the size she needs, and then of the aesthetics she wants. The retailers, the middlemen, also need to be convinced: not just that these sizes are really truly prevalent, or that this style really will resonate at a whole new level with customers, but that  live shoppers are out there now — not just potentially, tomorrow, but actually, today. They’re running businesses, not advocacy groups. They need to survive on the hard numbers they can project and then realize this quarter. “If you build it, they will come” isn’t a business model in the real world.

What happens if full-bust women are waking up — increasingly aware, galvanized, ready to shop — but retailers aren’t there yet? If retailers don’t think the market is mature enough that customers exist for GG+ bras? Just as Claudette points out: it can make every bra in 28 bands and J cups till it’s blue in the face and its engineers are all sweaty and fulfilled and breathless, and nothing will change! As long as the retailers don’t believe they can sell those sizes, they are never going to order or stock them. Those bras are never going to see the light of day in an actual boutique. They’ll stay niched, obtainable only by the desperate self-educated expert shopper via mail order. Or, worse, they’ll be discontinued, or never even started — because they will be correctly assessed as unprofitable.

Retailer buy-in is a cost of entry for this business model.

It’s a bit of a tough nut. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the answer is to give up because OMG proactive market shaping is too haaaaaard and cooooomplicated. Once this problem is properly threshed out and clarified it really shouldn’t be all that difficult to address. Target retailers as well as consumers with thought-leader-driven education and awareness PR as pullthrough, carefully choosing the right channels for each audience, and so forth blah blah blah marketing fishcakes. It just, sigh, yes, may take a bit more in the way of up-front resource outlay to get at that elusive — but tremendous … srsly, the magnitude of opportunity sleeping here — ROI.

 

What can end consumers do?

Are we powerless?

Hell no.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE.

 

Here’s how to help this evolution, this renaissance, along.

Don’t just meekly settle for the ability to mail-order a bra that fits. Ask for more. Define your expectations. Do it in writing. ASK YOUR LOCAL RETAILER FOR YOUR SIZE. Furthermore, ASK FOR THE KIND OF BRA YOU WANT. Mention the brand(s) that you want to see your size in … and COPY YOUR REQUEST TO THOSE BRANDS.

Advice: pick your targets for feasibility. I’m as tempted as anyone to yowl for — well, in my case, Nichole de Carle and I.D. Sarrieri (now you know) — to cater to me right this m-f instant. But you’ve got to be strategic. Go stepwise. Think about it: what you’re asking should seem like a manageable, bite-sized risk, not a huge terrifying paradigm shift, to your target brand. So choose a brand that targets the size next door to yours. If you’re a GG-H cup, ask for — and cc — that great DD-G brand you can almost sister-size into but eh, not quite. If you’re an E cup, ask for — and cc — that one brand you love that offers only a C, a D, maybe a European E. If you’re a 28 band, why not hit up that one brand that’s so goddamn tantalizing because hell, it already offers 30 bands?

The great point is: write! Make yourself heard. Build the body of evidence the brands AND the retailers need for moving forward.

Be the case for the change you want to see in the world.

 

 

Odeanna

9 Comments

  1. It’s very, very hard at the moment to get retailers to take on anything new at all, never mind fringe sizes!
    They also like to then complain when us small brands retail ourselves, but honestly, I’d have released nothing new in the last 12 months if we hadn’t. there just isn’t the commitment there to develop at the moment.

    • Wow – so clearly this is a HUGE bottleneck. What you describe is pervasive, extreme entrenchment/change aversion; it’s definitely weird for any market to just completely seize up like that.

      What do you think is driving this? It could be risk sensitivity due to the recession economy, of course. But I’d think at least some minority of retailers might respond to a tougher environment by going all steely and determined and mounting an aggressive offense — succeed harder, beat down the competition, etc — rather than 100% of them fall back and calcify. I mean, a lot of them are entrepreneurs and that takes a certain temperament. Surely there are some backbones out there? I also wonder what’s going on in those retailer-customer conversations — they may well be actively discouraging risk-taking in order to position themselves as trustworthy, sensible frugal advisors (“why not just get the plain beige t shirt bra” etc) as a recession selling strategy. And, of course, I can’t help suspecting that profound long-held misconceptions about the full-bust customer may play a role. I’ve encountered plenty of bra salespeople who clearly fundamentally did not believe it feasible, appropriate or tasteful/desirable to to put anyone with a cup size over D into anything but a remedial beige orthopedic fullcup. I’m sure there are lesser shades of that mindset persisting even among retailers who are aware of and carry greater size ranges.

      Starting to fervently wish for a market research budget to go digging properly and really try to zero in on the specific defect at work here. I feel in my bones that the right lever must be out there that’ll move the needle with retailers and spark demand for the new again, but I’m an amateur without portfolio in this sector and am groping way more than I’d like. Sigh. Maybe I can find one or two retailers who’ll do phone interviews free or cheap.

      *ahem*

      squee/ wow wooow Kiss Me Deadly is reading my blog I WIN EVERYTHING /unsquee

      • Lingerie Addict pointed me at you as a full bust blogger with commercial sense (I was complaining about people who can’t do maths. Probably she’s bored of listening to me).
        I’m not so familiar with the US market, we never do very well with retailers there, but in the UK it’s definitely the risk aversion/recession thing.
        Then again the UK has more full cup bra brands than anywhere else, though I have to admit to a certain amount of scepticism on some of that – for example I have someone working for me who is something around a 28K in bravissimo, a 34E/F in Fraulein Annie and loves her van Doren bralet in I think XL (I forget the details). We’re pretty certain they’re all around the same size . . . .

        • Ha! Yes, it’s not as if there’s rigorous standardization, or really much standardization at all. And now I’m wondering if there’s any percentage in trying to shoehorn on a van Doren.

          The UK business owner is less classically or reliably “entrepreneurial” vs the US, I know. Plus, the wider selection of offerings may be dampening the consumer demand for something new and different. Very difficult environment.

          You know what I could see is a manufacturer-sponsored retailer education initiative designed to chip away at that calcification and encourage a different mindset. “Best Practices and Innovations to Survive Lean Times” — lunch event, webinar, podcast, whatever. But we’re going to need a bigger boat. Maybe a major private sponsor like Panache. Or some manufacturer or retailer association, or a media organ of record. I’m hazy on all that. (Also ugh “media organ” is a disgusting-sounding phrase.) It’s on the Ideas I Wish I Had a Mandate to Pursue list for now.

  2. I actually wrote some similar commentary on my own blog about the 28 band issue and retailers, so I appreciated your thoughts here. I also wrote a post for TLA awhile back on how to nicely ask bra companies and retailers for what you want in terms of sizing and style! Everything you say is true and I wish people did it more. Again, I’m a 34HH, so I struggle with the great G cup divide along with lots of the people who comment on my articles. I’m also big on contacting brands and retailers on social media and making sure they know that I bought from them and why – in many cases, it’s because they carry a brand like Kris Line that I can’t find any other place. I always cross my fingers and hope that this encourages them to stock more or to just not drop a brand that may seem less popular or a size range that is less desirable.

    That said, in my real job as a lingerie copywriter and consultant I see the company side of things. Development of new and untried is expensive and if you’re a small company it can be nearly impossible. On top of that, sizes become less standard after a certain point so they tend to get returned more often – many companies see that as a sign of the entire size range being problematic rather than the specific bra or lack of choice leading people to try things that don’t suit them. While I’d obviously personally love to see more choice, I don’t think that will happen until people start actively voting with their money and their social media accounts. Companies need to see the dollars that you represent and how they can keep you around to know that the demand is there, which they aren’t now. Instead, they see a bunch of difficult sizes that are expensive to develop without much profit at the end. Some companies can afford to try it out and lose some money if it doesn’t work, but many don’t have that option. It’s a complicated and tangled problem and there isn’t an easy solution to things.

    • Super thoughtful comment that articulates and adds to some stuff I was vaguely turning over.

      I work — like, paid work (hollow laughter) — in specialty marketing in a completely and utterly different sector where I’m used to a high presumptive pace of change and to working with brands that have money to spend on moving a relatively small customer base. So I do need to be careful with some of the instinctive ways I reach out after solutions. A small brand can’t perhaps take on much in the way of proactive full-bust market shaping. Mind, even a small brand isn’t powerless, it may be possible to create high-mileage-low-cost PR/advocacy/showcasing hybrid opportunities, or at least sculpt a relevant social media identity. But it’s companies like Wacoal/Eveden or Panache that really do have the clout to move the needle, and in my book there are leadership responsibilities that go with that, and, of course, they’re also best positioned to reap the return by scooping up the resulting opportunity explosion. So there’s certainly room there to bring in some innovations that actively drive change. The small brands meanwhile of course have branding problems to solve, perspectives to offer, greater agility and the ability to establish proof of principle for exploratory or aggressive ideas, and so on and so forth. There’s really a ton to do all over. JUST PUT ME IN CHARGE ALREADY lol

      Meanwhile the poor under-served end consumer pretty much has to roll up her sleeves, get out, and start pushing. I agree about active use of social media. Twitter especially is a powerful tool for direct consumer advocacy. And the nascent fitting awareness revolution — which inevitably will be the major growth engine that gets this party started in the end; I just would like it to be within my lifetime, pls thx — is almost completely social-media-driven.

  3. Thanks for reminding me it’s up to me too.

    The thing is, I’m actually really satisfied with how the market has grown recently, even without my complaints. I can now order clothing that fits at reasonable prices from Poland! I can buy bras for 40 euros instead of 120! I can find a bra which more or less fits my shape! Maybe I don’t like the way it looks, but it’s a functional garment that I’m going to cover up anyway.

    So really, I’m not as dissatisfied as I sound (except on the androgyny front!). I’m disappointed by how we’re *talking* about full-bust market, as if it were one monolithic market from F to K and beyond, and any foot-in-the-door entry is exciting. I start out excited, but then I’m disappointed to realize that I’m not part of the target market. I understand why they’re starting out small, and I can see that it might help for me to address them specifically after they’ve had a few years of experience in a subset of the market.

    Maybe what I’m asking is for different terminology, for the explicit definition of the size range before I get my hopes up. When I see the term ‘full bust’ I think of myself as a possible customer; being sized out of regular bra shops tends to give you that self perception. The excitement I’ve observed about the brand changes to frustration when I discover that isn’t the case, which makes me less inclined to think of it as a positive-step-forward-even-if-it-doesn’t-fit-my-needs and more as exaggeration (untrustworthy, mocking, and marketing lies are my associations in this situation).

      • Sometimes it isn’t until you see something a few times that you realize that it’s been bothering you. I only figured out that I was annoyed by the full bust thing recently, and that’s why I’m so vocal about it now. I’m still stumbling around to articulate exactly what it is that bothers me. So it’s quite reasonable if we’re all still stumbling around trying to figure out if there’s a better way to express concepts.

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