Our annual statistical series, which originated when store-related activities occupied a significantly smaller portion of my time, transformed over the years into a process I both love and loathe—love for the satisfaction it affords my inner math geek and analytical personality type who genuinely enjoys pouring through data and abstracting patterns and loathe for the overworked business owner who has to find time for sifting through large quantities of figures. Nevertheless, to even be celebrating five years of business, no matter how much time it tacks onto the analysis, is something of a mini-miracle for our small but ambitious shop. Examining the cumulative data demonstrates how much we have grown, not only in terms of sales figures but also in size and style assortment. Before we delve into the statistics, however, I wanted to make a few preemptive comments in the hopes of lending some perspective to the actual numbers. (Note: If you haven’t already seen our post on the giveaway, do so now as there is still time to enter.)
Last year, I wrote a comprehensive demographics analysis, and we have not seen any significant changes. We are still in a middle class area with a primarily female customer base, most of whom fall between 25 and 65 years of age. Roughly half of our customers are people of color (POC) with the other half being white. In my previous post, I discussed the rationale for why each of these demographics was important for analyzing the statistics, and I want to avoid repeating myself. Instead, I prefer to briefly touch on what the demographic information means for me, the owner and product buyer, and how it influences my decisions.
Middle Class Customers: In April, I submitted my annual survey to newsletter recipients and asked the following question:
Over 70% of our customers have an upper limit of between $50 and $80 for a quality bra with only 4.2% willing to spend more than $80. Given the preferences of our customers and the general income of the area, I often pass over luxury or higher end labels like Prima Donna, Marie Jo, or Empreinte, and even bridge labels with higher price point styles need to be carefully considered for fit, quality, and demand. Once a bra reaches the $70 price point, the customer has to not only love it, but she or he has to love it more than any other bra in the store. There is no room for inventory error in higher price points, which forces me to balance carefully which styles are stocked and which are reserved for special order only. Furthermore, higher price points are usually only supported by basic bras. A fabulous, wear-under-everything t-shirt bra like the Natori Pure Allure or the Elomi Amelia garner customer dollars easier than an ornately detailed, lacy fashion bra, no matter how gorgeous, innovative, or original it may be.
A Female Customer Base: Bra stores are usually strongly associated with female clients, so for this demographic assumption to impact buying decisions may seem counter-intuitive. Because we also assist male customers, it can mean that they are often presented with the lowest number of in-stock options, particularly since the general size range (38+ bands and AA-D cups) is one we see less frequently. Men who enjoy cross dressing tend to suffer the most because what we do stock is usually in keeping with what the female customer base prefers: comfortable, t-shirt bras. To keep the doors open and to facilitate our ability to stock more sizes and styles, I rely primarily on sales drive data, meaning the preference of females will outweigh the preference of males. I have been vocally active about my belief that bras can be for everyone, and I even switched to using gender neutral language on our website and in reviews to show my support of bra wearers not identifying as female, but when 99.99% of our customers are women, store inventory will naturally skew more toward their needs.
Race & Neutrals: Race is the single most challenging demographic to balance for inventory. First, I have been extolling the benefits of companies expanding core colors to include more skin tone variations for years. Even those of the Caucasian persuasion could benefit from having a shade other than beige, black, and sometimes white as the core colors, but it’s especially important for people of color who are often trapped between one shade too dark and one shade too light. Some of these limitations actually arise not only from limited access but also from awareness on the part of the customer. Style gurus, makeover specialists, and yes, even bra fitters have reinforced the idea of black and “nude” (a word I have come to despise the longer we’ve been open) as being the most acceptable choices for bras, and the American public has accepted their expertise and recommendation without question. Wacoal has a gorgeous color called Cappuccino in their rotation (well, not so much anymore) that we have tried to carry multiple times, and each time it is discontinued. Why? Because sales are poor. White people think they need white or “nude” (hereafter called “sand”), and POC, especially black women, think they also either need sand or black. This is especially true of women 40+ who have spent years being indoctrinated into a neutral trinity of bra buying which does not really represent them or their needs. Raising awareness among customers for other neutral options has been one of my goals, but it is challenging when manufacturers aren’t living up to the demand. Fortunately, we have seen a growth in core offerings, and I hope that the lingerie community as a whole can work together to spread the word and encourage customers, retailers, and manufacturers of this need.
In a perfect world of unlimited budget and unlimited space, the shop would offer best-selling styles in multiple neutral colors to ensure each person was able to find the unique shade of nude which matched his/her skin tone. As a result, our inventory mix has gravitated toward 50% of basics in something akin to sand and 50% in something akin to black (bonus points if it is a beautiful color or design which attracts anyone like the Elomi Cate in Latte or Pecan, the Goddess Keira in Chocolate, or the aforementioned Wacoal Cappuccino), but this means it’s very easy for a person who wants black or a darker neutral to fall in love with all sand bras or vice versa. It happens a lot more than you think, and we are forced to rely on special orders to bridge the gap here. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, this year has been the year for stock outtages in dark colors. Goddess has been back-ordered for months on the chocolate and black variations of their best-selling bras, and Curvy Couture isn’t expecting any new black bras in the Lace Shine until September. This means we end up switching to the sand color for simple availability’s sake, which can throw off a carefully planned mix and offset the goal of a 50/50 split. With increased sales this year, I am hopeful that we’ll be able to stock duplicate colors in best-sellers to lessen the need to special order.
When I glanced through our demographics posts from past series, I realized I never addressed a major factor in our statistical findings, namely the store’s location. Burlington is a mid-sized town nestled along the I 40/85 corridor between Greensboro and Durham in the Piedmont Triad community. Our area of the region includes a large lifestyle center about a mile and half from us with big box anchor stores like Belk’s, Dillard’s, BJ’s, and Kohl’s, and across the street from the center sits a Target accompanied by chain eateries and clothing retailers. A couple miles in the opposite direction sends you straight into the heart of Elon University. Our store is tucked into a small, newer strip center, the tenants of which are predominantly destination stores, like a dog groomer, a sign printing shop, and an ale house. There is no real foot traffic whatsoever for us.
We choose this location originally because the rent was lower, and with our minuscule opening budget, that was a big concern. Many of the better locations we looked at had significantly higher rents and some wanted a personal guarantor for the full lease amount should we go out of business. As we are a Limited Liability Company (LLC), this would negate the legal protection we have as individuals from business debts, and with a new, untested business ran by a 25 year old computer programmer, we were just not willing to take that kind of risk. Savannah West shopping center was the best option, and we have scratched and clawed our way up over five years to develop a loyal customer base using mostly grass roots marketing and word of mouth. As we became more established, big box store fitters at places like Lane Bryant, Soma, Catherine’s, and even the occasional Victoria’s Secret have referred customers to us who they could not help.
What this means is our inventory mix, sales figures, and strategies are going to be vastly different from the store benefiting from foot traffic. We are primarily a bra fitting store. Every time I try to bring in products other than bras, they sell slowly because customers visit primarily for the bras and with a set budget in mind. We receive clients from all over the state and Virginia, making it paramount that we place a strong emphasis on multiple styles in a large range of sizes. Because of the destination element of our location, our sales distribution is driven by people frustrated with their current options or experiences at other shops and are craving the unique service of a specialty shop. If a customer is in our store, more than likely, they are there to get fitted and purchase. This business facet adds a sense of accuracy to the size distribution posts, but it may also create a sharper variation from other retailers who benefit more from a foot-traffic based business.
All of our sales figures are from July 17th, 2011 to July 17th, 2016 and factor in both online and in-store sales. Roughly 25% of our total sales occur online or through email consultations. When I first decided to chronicle the bra sizing figures, my goal was to showcase how diverse bra sizing really was and to highlight the importance of size inclusivity for retailers and manufacturers alike. As the online sales portion grew, it increased the potential for the sales figures themselves to be less representative of a verified bra size and more about what sizes sell best overall. Size inclusiveness has vastly increased in the last few years, although some areas are certainly underrepresented, and I find the sales figures themselves to be a better tool for my personal evaluation. As with last year, I examined the dollar amount sold instead of the units since I am more interested to see which sizes generate more money to ensure I keep their stock levels high.
Good Intentions and Words of Encouragement
From a personal perspective, I know statistical series like this can negatively impact body image for some people. One of the unfortunate statements I hear on a weekly basis is how customers feel like they have “weird” or “abnormal” bodies, particularly if they fall outside of the more common sizes. This sentiment can be exacerbated if we do not carry a size on hand or if we only stock a style or two. People visit a specialty shop, particularly those referred by other retailers, under the impression we will absolutely, unquestionably carry their size and be able to satisfy their needs. The toughest lesson I have learned in this business is that is you cannot be all things to all people. There are going to be sizes and styles you do not stock and demands you cannot meet simply because doing so would be dangerous to the health of your business. Retailers must stock the bulk of their inventory in sizes and styles which have the highest full-price turnover rate, often termed “rent payers,” to ensure the doors stay open to help people outside of core sizes. When you have the potential to carry every size from 26A to 56JJ (for over 200 different sizes!), it’s impossible to carry everything without a significantly larger space and budget than most boutique owners can afford. In short, it’s not fair to demand a retailer carry that kind of size range for the sake of including every possible person when only a fraction of those sizes are going to sell regularly.
However, it’s also not fair to judge yourself simply because you aren’t one of the core sizes for a given retailer. For starters, we all have different customer bases. Some boutiques find they do the best by catering only to certain sizes (like D+, plus-size, or something specific like 30-38 UK A-G). Furthermore, some stores offer bra fittings as a part of their shop but also focus on other elements of intimate apparel like shapewear, lingerie, sleepwear, and sex toys. As I mentioned above, we are primarily a bra fitting store in an unfortunate location with minimal foot traffic, so we live or die by carrying a large range of sizes but also by the bra turnover rate. With the recent influx of wireless customers, the “too many skus” problems has only become more difficult to grapple, and we have had more than a few people leave without purchasing because our selection focuses more on underwires. There’s a reason entrepreneurs burn out, lemme tell ya.
In the end, I just want to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with you or your body regardless of what bra sizes you wear and how popular it is in our shop. The series is meant to be an informative, fun look at one store’s sales records and nothing more. Happy reading!