How Specialty Stores are Braving the Storm

By Ellen Lewis

Before the pandemic turned the retail world upside down, the department store business was already dying on the vine. Witness the latest fall out of Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penny’s. Why? We can certainly cite the internet, e-commerce, social media. But to me, it was the lack of imagination and the disregard for what the consumer really needs and wants.

One of the reasons I personally love the specialty store retail channel is because of the entrepreneurial spirt of their owners. This resolve is the hallmark of small shop business. The driving force was, is and always will be the customer. Constrained by a budget, but not by bean counters, the search for merchandising opportunities remains the motivating force. These merchants can make their own decisions. I know this personally because when I was a buyer at A & S and Macys (a million years ago), department stores were regional. Buyers developed their own financial strategies and made purchases according to individual store profiles learned by visiting their stores constantly. No one told me what to buy.

Leonard Cohen said: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This statement captures the mindset of the Lingerie Specialty stores as the quarantine evolved. From an initial state of shock to a call to action, buyers have used their pandemic reality to forge ahead and find a way to survive. Recently, I moderated Curve’s first virtual chat with store owners to discuss their reactions and the actions they have pursued to find a solution to cash flow dilemmas and their business grief. The range of emotions and the initiatives developed by each store have been enlightening. The initial conversations were difficult. The shock, the deer in the headlight reactions, the sense of loss. It was hard to hear. Lodged in the epicenter here in NY, I completely understand Town Shop’s Danny Koch. His family has steered this iconic shop since 1888 and never experienced anything like this. NYC has been especially devasting and the epicenter of not only the disease but heartbreaking emotions. But as the weeks have advanced, innovative merchandising methods have emerged proving successful enough to keep many stores above water. In fact, many of these will prove useful in the future.

Certainly, social media has taken the reins. Many buyers used this tool to reach customers directly. Liliana Mann, owner of Linea Intima in Ontario, began a live video series of alphabet stories. Featuring one bra cup size daily on Facebook and Instagram, she identified styles targeted for a specific size, for example a D cup. The results have been positive, upping sales each day in these sizes.

Susanne Alvarado, owner of Sugar Cookies in downtown NYC, started virtual trunk shows. Using e-mail, social media, and her website, she began partnering with brands. Posting the brands e-commerce images, she offered their collections on her own social media, for example Cosabella. After the sale was made, the item was directly drop shipped from the company, never entering her inventory. A win for both.

Kimberly Fairs from A Lion’s Lair in Florida began online auctions on Facebook starting with bits and pieces of her inventory at cost, she sold 120 items the first few days.

Jenette Goldstein, owner of Jenette Bras in L.A. and Atlanta, is in a particularly unique situation, having opened two new stores situated on opposite coasts one week prior to the closedown. She has created an omni presence on social media using personal, life evoking stories to stay front and center with her customer. This has also enabled her to sustain communication with her extensive charity network.

Sonya Perkins of Forever Yours Lingerie in British Columbia was very direct with an outright appeal to her customers for help to keep her store running. Her customers responded. Using social media, especially live video on her robust Instagram, she sold enough product to pay the first month’s rent while closed.

One of the initiatives that I personally found surprising, was how Tana Re and Lisa Cetrone, owners of TLC in Montana, managed to run virtual fittings online. Against my belief that this can work, in the first 17 fittings, they gleaned sales from 15 sessions. Thinking outside of the box, they asked each customer to ensure that someone else, a sister, mother, daughter was present during the fitting. This enabled them to instruct the partner on how to adjust the bras. From the viewing, they suggested styles. They sold their first 2 Empreinte bras at $200 in this manner.

Staying in touch with customers proved to be a real force as people yearned for human contact. Jeanne Emory owner of Bra Genie in New Orleans spent an incredible amount of time touching base with her consumers. Sending personal handwritten notes to her 100 best customers proved priceless. The feedback and the sales results were outstanding. As she told me, doing things more deliberately, more mindfully helped to deliver the message that Bra Genie cared about their needs through this debacle.

Patti Platt and Rebecca Ulrich-Dodson from A La Mode in Maryland focused intensely on preparation for reopening. Learning every detail on cleanliness and prevention from the CDC, they have prepared their stores step by step to insure customer confidence upon return. Communicating this constantly has kept them in constant touch. It is also interesting to note that the shift in sale’s content for many of these retailers was eye opening. Sugar Cookies, reaching out to their standard customers, mostly boudoir oriented, discovered that she was selling comfort over sexy and introduced products successfully that she had never sold before. Bra Genie’s surge in sleep, lounge and bralettes only reinforces a trend that was evolving even before the pandemic.

I can not emphasize enough the level of charitable work that many stores contributed. From Larissa Olson of Chantilly Lace’s launched the Comfort Project for nurses, to Michael and Sarah Weiner of Trousseau’s devotion to creating and donating masks to multiple medical related venues, the community outreach from all these stores was enormous.

The cooperation between stores and brands and the efforts on both sides to support each other through this time merits mention. But the list is too extensive to overview here. It does, however, emphasize the astonishing community attitude inherent in the Lingerie Industry.

The actions taken by many of the stores around the country prove that there “could” be light at the end of the tunnel. Paraphrasing David Brooks in a recent Times editorial: "We are embarking on The Great Reset. We must identify the forces that drive change, own our own set of strategic opportunities, find new perspectives, and invoke more generosity and solidarity than we could have previously accepted. To be present in the moment is a luxury."

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