For the first four years of our shop’s existence, customers bombarded me with questions about whether we would start carrying bra-sized swim. “It’s so needed!” “The only places around here even with swim are Walmart and Target, and it will do SO well!” “If you guys do swim, it will sell out fast!” Admittedly, I was extremely excited about the prospect because the first year we opened, I ordered my own bra-sized bikini and was hooked. When I first moved to NC, I had lost 60 pounds and had no swim suit, and for those who are reading this from afar, NC is an amazingly beautiful state. There are beaches, lakes, rivers, and pools which are clean, serene, and perfect for a swim, and swimming is one of my favorite things to do. I wanted to experience everything the state had to offer in summer, and so I began the great bathing suit quest of 2010.
My customers are indeed right that the local selection is lacking, especially if you happened to be fuller-busted, and I vividly remember driving all the way up to DANVILLE FREAKING VIRGINIA because that store had one bikini top left in the size I needed. I spent more in gas than that damn cheap ass suit was worth. And you know what? It still sucked. It just sucked less than everything else I tried. As a result, when I finally was able to experiment with bra-sized swim, it was a revelation to me. Wait, what? This is actually in my bra-size? It’s not some Small-Medium-Large monstrosity with only enough fabric to cover my areola? I knew in that precise moment, as sure as I knew the first time I was fitted properly for a bra, that this was an experience every person deserves.
Flash-forward to 2017: After years of customer’s hounding me, I was finally ready to take the plunge and actually bring in some swimwear. Unfortunately, I only had $3,500 in my budget to spare, which is nowhere near enough, and I decided to create a crowd-source campaign to supplement that budget. Bra shopping can be very empowering for people although I realize many major brands have co-opted “empowerment” to the point of being practically meaningless. Nevertheless, I see every week how getting the right size can make such an impact, how having someone who helps you to see your beauty can improve self-esteem, and how life-changing it can be to not worry about your breasts interfering in your daily activities. I could only imagine the difference we would make for customers by stocking swimsuits!
As I was diligently working on the campaign, I thought back on all the times people asked for swim or insisted it would do well here, and I thought: This is gonna be a huge success. In reality, it was more of a lukewarm response. I aimed to bring in an additional $10k (maybe more because after all IT IS SO NEEDED GUYS!), but we ended up around $4k. After Indiegogo took their cut and the $400 worth of new fixtures were purchased, we had roughly $3k to add to our opening budget. Nothing could temper my optimism because I simply knew we would be inundated with special orders, and the stock we could afford would fly off the rack so fast that we would be able to keep adding new styles and sizes throughout the season.
Oh sweet naïve little child! For starters, swimwear is hella expensive y’all. With shipping costs, whatever the retail price is, I paid at least half that amount to stock it. Fortunately, bikini tops are comparable in price to bras and are thus more manageable. But people everywhere, especially women, have been so conditioned that their bodies are always in the wrong somehow and an affront to the rest of the populous that only 30% of my customers want those. No, they want tankini tops and one-pieces with as much coverage as possible. The cheapest tankini top we stock costs me $40. Each. This tankini also features 63 unique sizes, and if I choose to be truly representative, my grand total is $2,520. Granted, we are forced, by necessity, to focus on our best-selling sizes, and instead of the full assortment, I generally order about 40 sizes in that style for a total of $1,600. Remember: This is my cheapest tankini top and does not account for matching bottoms. Other tankinis and one-pieces are as much as $70 per unit. Clearly, the expense adds up fast. As one retailer eloquently stated: “[I] love the idea of stocking swim, but it’s so many SKUs that as a small business, it becomes cost prohibitive very quickly.”
Bringing in swimwear compounds every issue retailers slog through with bra inventory and then adds a host of random variables into the equation for good measure, namely the diversity of individual taste. With bras, people are already finicky about what they purchase, but when you sidestep into swim, the problem becomes exponentially more difficult. As I mentioned earlier, bras and bikini tops share similar features. Both cover roughly the same amount of skin. Some people want neutrals while others prefer print. Some people prefer frill while others like basics. Even with those variations and the vast number of sizes available, it’s stressful for retailers to make the right choices. But with swimwear as a whole, you have other issues to consider. Does the top have a matching bottom they like? Is the color going to please people? Is the print classic, trendy, or hideous? Another retailer weighed in saying “When we moved our store to a bigger location, we decided to add [swim] back as so many customers were asking for it. However, our customers are just too picky for the amount of selection we were willing to devote our stock dollars to. Take yesterday a woman came in asking for a high rise in solid black. It was about 1” too high for her liking. She didn’t like the lower one either. She left with nothing.”
Furthermore, if it’s your first year ordering swim, you also can’t rely on something retailers use in making inventory decisions: historical data. When I place our fashion orders for regular bras, it’s, to put it mildly, more stressful than going to the dentist. And I hate going to the damn dentist. You have to look at what kind of cash flow you had in previous years, what sizes sold the most/fastest, and which colors/prints have performed well overall. At the end of the day, you’re placing your faith that the thousands of dollars of merchandise you ordered will sell and that something doesn’t go wrong in between orders. Our first year with swim was the worst. I didn’t know what people would like or what sizes we would see. I also didn’t know how swim would fit or which suits performed best, only adding to the risk and frustration.
By the second year, I had a slightly better idea of what people were asking for, but our budget was still miniscule. I was only able to replenish our core and expand to a few new styles. And you know what? You still make mistakes. Even in more tropical climates where people can swim year round, the process is no less challenging. As this retailer notes: “It is far easier to stock bras for a variety of women because they are worn on a daily basis, and they aren’t subject to seasonal patterns. My major challenges with swim are: 1. Women have such different tastes that it is very difficult to accommodate all types . . . and it always seems like the moment you bring in one style, everyone is asking for the opposite. 2. In a warm climate, it really only works if I carry continuity colors and styles, because fashion swim often cannot be reordered if it sells well. . . Some people find basic colors boring, and I’m always worried that if I order fashion swim and an unable to restock it in a size someone needs, they will go online . . . it’s a lot of work to determine what to order, how to stock, when to discount, etc. that we just don’t have to worry about when it comes to bras.”
However, not every retailer in warmer climates finds it worthwhile to offer swim assortments: “We are in a warmer climate, but people still aren’t buying swim year round. I have a rack full of SS18 [Spring/Summer2018] swim that is now 40% off and will probably be reduced further just to move it out.” The need to discount underperforming swim also creates a stronger atmosphere of bargain hunting both in the shop and online. Retailers with online shopping fronts or who partner as third party sellers on existing platforms like Amazon often aim to regain valuable budgeting dollars through listing older swim at or even below wholesale cost. Consequently, brick-and-mortar stores become vulnerable to show-rooming, where a customer will be fitted for his/her size only to purchase the product online. This puts more wear-and-tear on inventory and wastes the shop’s time and possibly even paying customers’ time if the store is busy.
On a personal note, what I found soul-crushingly painful about stocking swim has been the times customers ask me “Is this all you have?” Honorable mentions also include “When will you put this on sale?” and “When will the new swim stuff arrive?” I understand many people have never worked retail, and I also understand many people are accustomed to the deceptive practices of big box and online retailers either over-valuing a product so they can still make a profit when it goes on sale or simply buying and selling in such bulk, that they can reduce the cost without substantially damaging their bottom line. However, we are not that kind of store, and when I hear “Is this all?” in that disappointed tone, I kinda want to yell “YOU ARE LOOKING AT $10K WORTH OF INVENTORY AND A HUGE CHUNK OF MY SANITY! YES THIS IS ALL!” It hurts, people, especially because many of the people who ask this never contributed to our crowd-source campaigns. Is this all? Yes. This is all I could afford. No, I won’t be getting in more shipments because again, this is all I could afford. The devastation of those comments ultimately made me revisit the idea of our “In with the Swim Campaign” this year, which has a few days left and has performed . . . well, we’ll just say tepidly.
Swim reminded me, as a retailer, I must determine what are demands related to actual deficits in our inventory (more lounge bra options, for example) versus which are demands made with no follow through on the part of customers. If every person who asked me about swimwear donated $50 to the original campaign, we would have doubled our goal. If every person who asked “Is this all?” or “When will you get more?” donated $50 this year, we would have met our goal. Optimism is a fine thing in business, but you need to balance your excitement to share new products with your customers with what you know you can sell.
Retailers reading through this article are probably breaking out in hives now at the very thought of wading into the swimsuit waters, which is not altogether the message I hope to send. Swim does boost sales in the summer. Those who special order add directly to your bottom line without inventory overhead, and others see that adorable suit you have and turn a $150 purchase into $250. Not to mention, stocking swim can attract new clients looking for local retailers providing a better selection, and once they learn about your store, they come back for other items too, giving you a sort of long term return on investment.
Brandy Ornelas of 4 Real Intimate Apparel based in Vegas (check her out if you go there!) shared her experience with me which was one of the more positive ones:
“Swim is NOT like bras as they have a shelf life of only about 3-4 months, as most people can’t swim during December. As a small boutique, we stock about $10k worth of swim all year long, in basics only. During April through August, we bump that up to $30k in swim, in-store. We allow customers to order out of manufacturer catalogs as well. It is impossible to stock every style and every size as each style/print is available in 40-50 cup/band combinations. At an average price of about $70 per piece, you’re looking at over $3k in just one style if you have the entire size range. Meaning you could only stock 3-4 colors/styles. Which is not enough variety . . . Swim fits differently than bras so you can make cup/band adjustments if necessary. As a retailer, you want to turn over your inventory as many times as possible to be profitable and that can be challenging with swim. Last year, we brought in a pastel color that we thought was cute. We had a customer order that style during our swim show and it was sold out. Luckily, we had it in her size on its way. Since it was sold out, I thought it would be popular but it was not. We ended up putting 50% of them on clearance in August. So you really can’t tell what is going to sell until you sell it. . . The real challenge is that we have to buy it before we can sell it and if it doesn’t sell before summer is over, we are simply out of cash. It’s really just a juggling act, or more like a lot of praying that you bought the right styles and they sell.”
Based on my experiences and the experiences of other retailers I spoke to for this post, swimwear is not as much of a sure thing as people have you believe. Some of my retailer friends even transitioned away from swim into more profitable lingerie-adjacent items like bridal or athletic wear. As consumers, it may also be worth asking yourself how you can help your favorite shop either expand their selection or support them through ordering. Furthermore, if the shop only has a limited selection, it could be worth remembering not only the overall investment but also that they can only stock what they feel will sell and will sell at full-price, even if that means they ultimately transition away from certain products or only stock certain styles or sizes. Sales drive our business, so when we remove things from our inventory mix, it’s usually either because the item is discontinued or it never performed well for us.
Overall, despite the somewhat negative tone of my post, I am glad we started stocking swimwear because I have seen its positive impact on the lives of our customers, but I do think it is something we may stock less of in the future and instead rely more on special orders to help the customers who need it.
P.S. Gentle reminder: If you do want to help us expand swim this season, the campaign ends March 27th, and you can contribute here.