Building a Better Bra Shop
By HOPE REEVES
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.''
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 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.
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
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
Hope Reeves is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
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