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Thomas Hannich; stylist: Anja Schulte-Vogelheim

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PROCESS

Building a Better Bra Shop

By HOPE REEVES

Published: November 30, 2003

The Problem

The name Victoria's Secret may conjure long-legged angels to the average consumer, but to department stores and the brands that offload intimate apparel in them, the Lycra-and-lace retailer is the devil in frills. Beginning in the late 70's with one store outside San Francisco, the chain (now owned by Limited Brands) has been creeping into malls all over America, nearly taking over the thong and push-up-bra market with its sexy image, neat merchandise displays and solicitous saleswomen. Adding to the headache of traditional department-store retailers is the emergence of cheap faux fashion undergarments at mass-market stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart. This new reality is a nightmare for Warnaco, purveyor of a quarter of all department-store lingerie with brands including Warner's, Olga and Calvin Klein, which emerged from bankruptcy this year. But luckily, the secret to Victoria's success -- and to Warnaco's difficulties -- isn't hard to figure out. ''The department store is confusing, it's hard to find a product, there's no service and it's very sterile,'' admits Tom Wyatt, the new president of Warnaco's intimate-apparel division. Until a decade ago, the department store dominated the bra industry, he says. ''But it has ceased to be at all inspirational. It's no longer a place where a woman shops and feels special.''

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Indeed, ask most any woman -- as Warnaco did during six months of focus groups -- and she'll tell you she hates, hates, hates the underwear-shopping experience at department stores. She might say that the first problem is sheer volume -- bras and underwear are jammed haphazardly onto racks that are packed too close together. Second, the layout is generally determined by brand rather than by purpose and with no real organization by size or color -- or by anything. And as Wyatt points out, customers long ago stopped looking for assistance -- a crucial component of bra shopping, since experts say that about 80 percent of women wear the wrong size. What's the point? In department stores there are either no identifiable salespeople or they are busy avoiding the gaze of needy-looking customers.

The Process

The first step to any recovery is overcoming denial, and Warnaco had enough insight to see that it needed help. This admission led to the design firm IDEO, a company based in Palo Alto, Calif., that is credited with bringing hipness to the images of everything from a Virgin Mega Store to PalmPilot. Warnaco executives sat down with IDEO analysts and explained that they wanted to redesign not their products (which they rightly or wrongly see as just fine -- more on that later), but the experience of shopping for intimate apparel in a department store. IDEO's ''human factors'' department organized a number of shop-alongs -- IDEO employees tagging along with women on bra-shopping trips -- and a series of ''unfocused'' groups: women were encouraged to free-associate ideas, then role-play the company out of its problems.

The shop-alongs yielded a bounty of not-so-surprising complaints. Luce Zolna is a retired 60-year-old who was shadowed through a Chicago-area Marshall Field's. ''I'm like five feet, and the racks were three to four feet wide and at least four and a half feet tall,'' she says. ''I could see nothing and got disoriented. All I wanted to do was leave.'' A 46-year-old technical librarian, Rachel Stallworth wandered through a Macy's in Sacramento. ''We were there for an hour or more, and the store clerks kept looking at us like, 'What are these people doing?' but not helping us much,'' Stallworth says. ''Finally I told them I was looking for a padded push-up bra, and they brought me one of those Cross Your Heart suits of armor.''

In the two unfocused groups, IDEO invited the women -- about eight to a group -- to talk about their good and bad experiences, which amounted to very few in the first category and a long list in the second, then the groups broke up into smaller units to build their ideal underwear-shopping experience. In this segment, the women who acted as customers expressed a desire to be advised and reassured by the women acting as salespeople. And those salespeople responded as instructed, producing a giggly lovefest that seemed to leave everyone satisfied and, at least in this fantasy world, purchasing an expensive undergarment or two.

IDEO digested this load in a series of meetings and mingled them with brainstorming sessions conducted with technology, design and product experts. The analysts presented their findings to Warnaco a few weeks ago and are now entering the prototype phase.

The Solution

So what's coming soon to a lingerie department near you? Well, it depends not only on how receptive Warnaco will be to IDEO's ideas but also how much the department stores themselves -- which own the space and pay the employees -- will absorb. But let's imagine that a Macy's were to implement the whole plan. The first thing you would notice is a gateway, or something resembling a big arch, announcing that you have entered lingerie land. Products would be organized into sections by use -- gym, work, special occasion -- rather than by brand, and in each section, they would be broken down further by size, color or style. Following the Victoria's Secret model, bras and underwear would be kept in clearly marked drawers, identified by style and size. The dressing rooms would be large and comfortable, complete with tools like measuring tapes and a call button, so you could get help without parading around in your underwear. Outside your room would be a cozy area for your friends or spouse, or whoever's opinion you can't live without.

Interestingly, the plans don't address one of the biggest complaints expressed by IDEO's test consumers -- that the products themselves are a big part of the problem. Some women bemoaned the fact that bras are made for average-size people and ignore small- and large-breasted women either by not accommodating them at all or by providing so few and unappealing choices that women in these categories feel completely shunned. Warnaco's Wyatt, however, insists that his products are just fine and come in a range of styles and sizes -- they're simply hidden right now in a sea of satin. ''I believe I could take any lady on the floor and find her products she would be happy with,'' he says. ''I just might have to search for them.''

Or these women could look for a store like the Town Shop, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. This 115-year-old family-owned business sells bras from AA to JJ, and the saleswomen claim they can size you up in a glance. ''The idea of Warnaco paying someone to come in and tell them how to do something so simple boggles my mind,'' says Danny Koch, an owner. ''All you have to do is get people in a comfortable environment and provide them with service. Hey, I'll give them the secret right now -- and for half what they're probably paying that fancy company.''

Hope Reeves is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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