Editor’s Note: For an alternate perspective on why shopping in a luxury lingerie boutique matters, take a look at Faire Frou Frou’s guest post on the subject: Why Shop in a Luxury Lingerie Boutique?
I have a confession to make.
I buy 90% of my lingerie online. And I’m not alone.
Whenever I mention this, especially to boutique owners, they’re usually shocked. I get accused of everything from not wanting to support small businesses to just being a “bargain hunter.” But after talking with Holly, one of our columnists and founder of The Full Figured Chest, a few weeks ago, I realized we have the same reasons for lingerie shopping online and they all cluster around the same 3 areas: Customer Service, Merchandise Selection, and Return Policies.
Though neither of us would presume to speak for every customer who shops online, I don’t think the issues we’re going to talk about here are all that unique or unusual. As always, we’d love to hear what you think, agree or disagree, in the comments.
Treacle: Thanks so much for being willing to “go public” with me about the reasons we lingerie shop online. I feel like it’s almost a taboo subject…there are a lot of assumptions about why people shop online, and they don’t always match reality.
Holly: I feel like there’s a movement out that there says you should be going to boutiques all the time, and that just isn’t a reality for most people. I’m all for buying local, but it doesn’t always work well for lingerie.
Treacle:Why don’t we start by addressing that whole, “If you shop online you must be a bargain hunter” mindset? I honestly don’t understand the problem with customers wanting to get a good value for their money…especially if you’re on a tighter budget. When I make groceries, I’m not ashamed to use coupons to save a few dollars. When I’m shopping for clothes, I won’t buy a dress full price if I can find the exact same one on sale. Why is it wrong to apply that mindset to lingerie?
Holly: As a practical example, I purchased a bra in a brick and mortar boutique recently that I later saw on Brastop for 50% less. I didn’t return the bra, but I did find myself wishing I’d known before. There’s nothing shameful about paying less money for the same product if you’re able to do so. In fact, it enables me to splurge on the truly unique stuff that I find in boutiques, both online and off.
Treacle: Totally agree. As a customer, a boutique of any kind (online or brick-and-mortar) has only one or two opportunities to convince me to shop from them. But since it takes little more effort for me to reach the nearest physical store, I have to feel like it’s worth my time before I go to it.
Holly: There’s also more pressure to buy in a boutique, at least if you’re a nice sort of person. Whenever I go to a boutique I feel like I should buy at least a small item to make their time worthwhile, even when I haven’t had the greatest experience.
Treacle: I’ve done the same, and what you said about not having “the greatest experience” is a great lead-in to the next topic…customer service. I visit a ton of lingerie boutiques, and most of them lose me as a customer by completely ignoring me when I walk in the store. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t think wanting a “Hello” or a “May I help you?” or even a “Be right with you,” is out of line…especially when those same staff members are going out of their way to greet and help other customers.
Case in point, I visited a really well-known lingerie boutique in New York with my fiancé this past February. I’d been looking forward to visiting them all week. I’d set aside money specifically to purchase from them. I’d been talking them up for several days. And when I walked into the store, they acted like I wasn’t even there. Other people that came in after me were helped straight away, but I was treated like I was invisible. It was so bad that even my guy (who doesn’t normally pay attention to this sort of thing) asked what the problem was we left. Needless to say, I didn’t buy a single item. But I also don’t announce that I’m a lingerie blogger when I visit boutiques, so maybe my treatment has something to do with that?
Holly: I’ve still had bad boutique experiences when they know I’m a lingerie blogger. A friend had made the appointment for me the last time I went to get fitted at a well-known boutique, so they knew I was a lingerie writer. The boutique owner still asked if I was pregnant upon seeing my size 12/14 body and tried to sell me a bra that didn’t fit at the end. I talked to another online lingerie boutique owner after all of this, who gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about boutiques. “If you don’t walk out of there in a fabulous bra that fits while feeling fabulous about yourself, the boutique didn’t do their jobs right.”
Treacle: Exactly. If my options are going to your store and dealing with unpredictable customer service or just staying home in my lounge pants and ordering from my laptop, why wouldn’t I choose the second option? It’s just less trouble.
In the same vein, I also expect the staff at a lingerie boutique to be familiar with the products. If I’m wanting to know details about item, like sizing advice or if a brand runs large or small, the boutique’s staff should be able to tell me. If not, then I start to wonder what value is being added to the boutique experience.
Holly: Exactly. Especially as a good online product description may already include that information! I always encourage my clients to provide as much fit information as possible for that reason alone. Sometimes online places are the best source for that kind of thing.
Treacle: Speaking of sizing, why don’t we switch gears to selection now? I think the selection issue has two components: sizes and brands. As a 34C bra and a size L bottom, boutiques run out of my size all the time. And I understand that because they have limited floorspace so they can only carry so much product at once. But when I’m ready to buy something, I often choose the store that’s most likely to have my size in stock…and that’s online.
Holly: Selection is especially important if you’re in a rarer size range like the sub A cup range or the full busted range. Lots of brick and mortar boutiques don’t carry what are considered non-standard sizes, and I don’t really blame them. How many sub-A cup or J cup women are going to walk in their doors on a daily basis? Online boutiques can carry less stock and therefore stock a wider range of brands and sizes, or use their access to a worldwide customer base to specialize in one size or style range.
Treacle: There’s also a greater selection of brands online. Again, I understand limited floor space, but many lingerie boutiques carry the exact same brands. And I can only see so much Simone Perele and La Perla and Stella McCartney before I get tired of it and want something new. Everyone carries those brands. And they’re good brands, but I like trying new lines and discovering new favorites. But because new lines and indie labels aren’t guaranteed money makers, many boutiques won’t carry them, and so once again, I’m more drawn to shopping online.
Holly: I was at a Neiman Marcus a few months ago, and stopped in to check out their lingerie department. They pretty much had all of the brands you mentioned, with some Natori and Hanro thrown in. The sales assistant and I chatted for awhile, and it turned out she was a huge fan of the smaller brands. She has apparently been lobbying for more diversity for years and seen no results. She says that department stores and boutiques mostly just want to carry lines that are guaranteed to sell.
Treacle: Right, and I absolutely understand the motivation behind that. It just doesn’t make me excited to visit your store because I already know what’s there.
Holly: Ideally visiting a lingerie boutique should be a fun exploration, but so often it is stuff that we’ve all seen before. Even my mother (who is 68 and doesn’t know where the URL box is on her internet browser) has started buying her beloved Hanro nightgowns online for that very reason. She’s tired of seeing smaller stocks of the same brands that she has seen for years at her favorite department stores.
Treacle: The last piece we’re talking about is a big one for me – return policies. Many brick and mortar lingerie boutiques have final sale only policies. I understand they need to protect their business interests, and preserve their profits, but from a customer’s point of view, final sale policies are just a big neon sign telling me to go elsewhere because all the risk of the sale is on my shoulders. And when you’re new to lingerie or trying something different or your size is changing quickly, you want the possibility of being able to make a return…even if you never actually do it. A good return policy also shows me that the boutique has confidence in what they’re selling…and that gives me confidence too.
Holly: A bra can feel so different once you’ve had it on for a few hours! Wires can poke you that didn’t before, or you can notice fit issues that happen when your breasts settle into the cups of a new bra. Being able to return a bra under reasonable circumstances is so important. Brick and mortar stores are competing against places like Bravissimo, where you can return a bra up to 28 days after you bought it.
Treacle: Exactly! As a customer, I have to ask myself which kind of store is best for my particular situation.
One more quick note that doesn’t quite fit into any of these, but still matters. One of the things I’m always stressing to my clients is how essential having an online presence is. Most people find the nearest lingerie boutique online, not in the phone book. And not having a website or a newsletter or a Facebook page, makes you invisible to me and millions of other people.
Holly: I actually buy from several places online that have brick and mortar boutiques. I do so because of their completely unique selection of products, and have no problem paying higher prices for them. As someone who works with lingerie companies for a living, I’m always emphasizing websites and blogs. If you don’t have them in this day and age, you might as well not exist.
Treacle: At the end of the day, price isn’t the only reason people shop online. While online shopping doesn’t replace visiting a store, the truth is it’s more common now than ever before. And the burden is on brick and mortar boutiques to make sure they stand out in the ever-growing crowd of new lingerie businesses. Thanks for talking with me, Holly.