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Should Independent Lingerie Boutiques Support Independent Lingerie Brands?

It's not really a secret, but I buy a lot of my lingerie through the internet. Last year, I wrote an in-depth article on why I prefer to lingerie shop online, and in case you missed it, the three main takeaways can be summed up this way:

  1. I have a more consistent customer service experience online.
  2. I have a better selection of brands, styles, and sizes online.
  3. I have access to better return and refund policies online.

After I published that article, the reaction I received from the brick-and-mortar lingerie community was both fierce and predictable. Several people wrote to say I should never have written that article at all, and quite a few said they would never read my blog again. Those comments are neither here nor there, but the remarks that made the greatest impression were from independent boutiques who said customers should support them simply because they're independent... as though any reasons a customer might have for shopping elsewhere were irrelevant and secondary.

Now just to be clear, I definitely believe in supporting small business owners. In my day-to-day life, most of my shopping is local, and I'm fortunate to live in a city where buying from within your community is both encouraged and easy to do. However, at the end of the day, my neighborhood business still has to carry products I actually want to buy. If a customer is looking for widgets and your shop only carries doodads, you can't fault the customer for taking their widget-shopping money elsewhere. They're looking for a thing you just don't sell.

It's obvious how this relates to lingerie boutiques. As I mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons I shop online is because most everyone carries the same handful of well-known brands. If I want to try a new designer or an indie designer or an international designer, I have to go online, because my local lingerie store probably isn't carrying it. Of course, it's every store's right to stock who they want, in whatever size they want, at whatever price they want, but it's also the customers' right to let those very relevant factors influence their purchasing decisions. And while I won't pretend to know all the details of why a store stocks one brand over another, I can say I've learned a few things from the past several years of talking with industry people.

  1. A boutique will rarely carry a brand new label. They want to see several seasons of work before making a commitment.
  2. Brands can and will refuse to sell to a boutique if they dislike the look of the boutique or the labels they already carry. Some brands will even pull their stock or cancel orders if a boutique picks up the "wrong" name.
  3. Customers request that boutiques stock large brands because those are the names they're most familiar with through magazines features, celebrity endorsements, TV shows, etc.

All of that is perfectly reasonable. But I find myself wondering... if customers should buy from independent boutiques because they're independent (and therefore it's the right thing to do), should independent boutiques also do their share by supporting independent brands? Isn't it also the right thing? After all, buying indie not only supports fellow small business owners, it also supports other important causes like fair wages and compensation, ethical labor practices and manufacturing, and artisan skills.

Don't get me wrong... there are definitely some brick-and-mortar boutiques that excel at carrying independent brands. Faire Frou Frou and Dollhouse Bettie are two that immediately spring to mind. But most boutiques won't take that chance. And that's a shame because indie boutiques are the perfect distribution channels for brands that don't have the stock, the staff, or the manufacturing power to negotiate with major department stores like Nordstrom, Saks, or Bloomingdale's.

I know I'm just a consumer, but it seems like a win/win for both sides. Indie boutiques could pick up small orders, diversify their stock, expose shoppers to new brands, stay fresh and exciting, and also be supporting the think tank of the industry. Indie designers could reach new customers, get the revenue to increase manufacturing and production,  take risks in design and size offerings, and (perhaps hardest of all) stay in business for the long term. But for too many stores, it's just the same old, same old. And that drives customers like me who are seeking innovation elsewhere.

So what do you think? Should small lingerie boutiques should carry small lingerie brands? Is there a disconnect between asking customers to buy indie when boutiques won't buy indie themselves? Or should we all be okay with the status quo? I don't know the answer, but I'd really love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

13 Comments on this post

  1. Kitty Plum says:

    Interesting article and I agree that you shouldn’t just support a business because it is independent or local but for my boutique we rely on large brands that aren’t typically sold in department stores such as Lise Charmel, and Prima Donna. We have tried a number of independent designers but it can take a few seasons for them to really perfect their style and fit. I’ve also unfortunately been in a position where orders haven’t turned up, the wrong items arrive or the company hasn’t made enough and because we are small we miss out. I have a wish list of independents I would like and one bit of advice I would have is not to have a minimum order. For my business £1000 on an untried designer is a big investment. :)

  2. Marianne says:

    I was just talking to Holly, the shop manager at Dark Garden, earlier today about making some Pop Antique stock to sell at DG over the summer. Having worked for/with them for the past nearly five years, I obviously knew they carried a lot of local designers, but I hadn’t realized the extent of it until Holly described the shop (in its present form) as something of a gallery space, featuring primarily local, handmade designs from woman-owned businesses. Of course, San Francisco in general is very hospitable to small, artisan businesses.

  3. We pride ourselves on selling independent UK luxury lingerie design house collections – we have the best 12 British luxury lingerie labels on offer on our site and are absolutely delighted to be working with each and every one of them. We love the fact that we can offer our customers designs that are both new and very hard to find (not at all high street brands), but of equal importance, we love the fact that we are sure of the quality and detail of the lingerie we sell that comes with working with these names (often our designers make the garments by hand). Of course, small design houses do not compete in terms of volumes with the big brands – once you make your order, there is often no way to get more of the pieces when they sell out specifically because they are one-off ranges or limited edition pieces. But truly we see this as an advantage – that way our customers know they are getting something really exclusive. We have absolutely nothing against the more mainstream brands or the bricks and mortar shops – quite the reverse, we think they are a wonderful way for the consumer to have choice in what they purchase. But we love to do it our way….we think luxurious style, the highest quality of craftsmanship and the finest materials are a great offering for our customers and they seem to love what we have.

  4. I opened my brick and mortar store about seven months ago, and have always attempted a decent mix of ‘big names’ and small indie lingerie companies. The problem I have been having is actually FINDING the small, independent companies to support! They are not at the wholesale markets, so being new in the field and not having a lot of connections via word of mouth has proven frustrating.
    There seem to be a lot of barriers acquiring UK brands and Australian brands that look appealing. Mainly due to a lack of communication from the companies I inquire about. Plus, as mentioned above, there are shipping costs and conversion rates to consider.
    Etsy has been an interesting outlet in finding personable small businesses to work with, but aside from that I have found the major brands are so much easier because of their organization setup. It’s unfortunate, and it’s boring, but true.

  5. Jackie says:

    As a small online boutique that we are moving to a bricks and mortar storefront, I am torn between supporting indie designers and carrying larger designers. Indie designers certainly offer something unusual and different, but as a they dot make their designs in larger quantities, carrying larger quantities and re-ordering takes time. The larger designers can get out re-orders quickly and offers a much wider variety for boutiques to carry. We have really tried to offer a few select designers that we feel targets our customer base. Also, as a small boutique, our inventory budget is small so we must find designers who are willing to work with us in small minimum orders and small re-orders. As I hear the horror stories of service issues when people shop at these boutique storefronts, I honesty can fathom how they stay in business. My biggest fear is to hire someone that doesn’t offer the best service to any customer that will soon visit us. If you want to run a boutique store, you should offer high quality service to each and every customer. Bottom line, I think each boutique should offer the designers and lines that best fit their needs and customer base and helps them be a successful business.

  6. Lindsay says:

    I agree with this, and think that they do a much better job of it overseas. I’m always delighted when I find a shop in the UK or Australia, for example, that sell niche and indie brands. The US really needs to embrace it’s indie designers, especially because so many of them here in NY are salable, sustainable and well made. Thanks for the post, Cora!

  7. Le Macaron Lingerie says:

    Hi, I am a independent luxury lingerie store in Beijing. We have one store and we also sell online too. I love independent lingerie brands as they bring me surprise every season! The designs are so much more fun than those big labels and the quality as well as the attention to details are much better. You have to be extremely passionate about lingerie to take the risk of carry independent lingerie brands. You won’t have an idea if the customers would like the designs of not. I carry 5 independent UK brands and some others. All of the brands I carry are made in the EU. and I am happy to bare the cost of import tax and postage and other costs only because I want to bring the best quality luxury lingerie to my customers, to teach them what is top quality lingerie. However there are also down sides about independent lingerie brands as their wholesale price would be higher simply because they are not mass produced to keep the quality standard high, so there are smaller profit margin for me compare with the big brands. So I think YES! independent lingerie stores should support independent lingerie brands to make the world more fun!

  8. Estelle says:

    Sorry for the typos in that comment I’ve just re-read, it’s predictive text! :)

  9. Estelle says:

    I’m super passionate about supporting indie lingerie designers (it’s almost exclusively what my site stocks) and I realise I’m a but different because my boutique is online, but I’m still an independent retailer so I can kind of see this from their perspective. I made a conscious choice to specialise in indie designers because its what I live doing but I have to admit that the few wholesale brands I do stock, like Leg Avenue, are in my top sellers. People search for those brands because they know they exist, and they buy from them because they have before and know what to expect. Not to mention mass-produced goods are cheaper – and have a higher markup for the retailer too usually.

    So I completely understand indie boutiques wanting to stock well known brands proven to sell. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say they SHOULD choose wholesale brands over indie brands if that’s what they want because as an independent retailer, they’re far more likely to be badly hit by low sales. If they don’t choose their product range wisely they’ll go bust.

    Big, chain store retailers on the other hand are the ones who should be supporting indie designers. They can afford to take the (relatively small) hit if the small order they place fails to sell, and if it does well its great for them and the designer, who gets huge exposure. That’s why I like retailers like ASOS who are huge but don’t feel like they’re too good to stock small independent brands :)

  10. Jessica says:

    Honestly, I can’t support the only independent brick-and-mortar boutique near me because they are awful. They stock brands that I would like to buy/try on, but they only order one of each size in their stock–once it’s gone, it’s gone, and they rarely stock above an E cup. When I went in the first time trying it out, it was like trying buy from the Ice Queen in Narnia.

    My go-to places online are Journelle, because they answer my questions very quickly and offer good pricing compared to other sellers, and Nordstrom, because if something doesn’t fit I can return it for free. My local Nordstrom is a bit mixed as far as helpfulness of the employees (I was once treated like an idiot when I said my size differed depending on the brand, and I was once treated like a lingerie genius and insider because I knew what was in the Stella McCartney winter v spring lines).

    It varies so much anyway, I would probably be reluctant to try brick-and-mortar independent stores in other cities, because independent boutiques tend to not stock the larger sizes–both for lingerie and for clothing. I also think there is greater potential for a bad experience because (shocker) employees are human, and humans are flawed. When I order something that is too small/large online it just doesn’t feel as personal when I get the wrong size, and that’s a good thing for me.

  11. Interesting post, Cora. I think one thing that really influences me when it comes to independent boutiques is whether or not they have a good online shop. If I’m going to make an effort to go to an actual lingerie boutique instead of just surf lingerie on my couch, they’ve got to give me a good reason to go see them by showing that they have great brands or styles that I will want to see/buy in person. A boutique without a website just drops off my radar.

  12. Thursday says:

    On my recent jaunt through the US and Canada, I stopped at a number of independent boutiques, and some of the bigger name stores (Macy’s, Frederick’s, etc.), and what I saw most of was the same brands – especially Elle McPherson! A bit disappointing when I can find that anywhere in Australia. Most boutiques had a brand, or a few, that were new and fresh, but on the whole, the experience felt quite homogenous. Given that there isn’t really much in the way of lingerie boutiques where I live, this was a bit disappointing. I think it’s important to be mindful of the limitations on small business, but the whole reason I go to bricks and mortar lingerie boutiques is to see new, independent labels. If I wanted Elle McPherson, I’d buy it online!

  13. I am a small independent boutique, and I do carry ranges that you cannot find on the high-street. At the moment I am not in a position to be able to diversify to some of the more unusual brands, simply because I haven’t built my business enough to know that I can sell them. However the brands I stock are not the ‘norm’ in the UK lingerie trade.
    Being independent and offering brands that you can’t find elsewhere is something that I pride myself on (along with customer service). What would be the point in stocking the same ranges that you can get buy the department stores, where they are offering 20% off every 6 weeks.
    Also, by reading blogs and industry articles I am currently the only stockist of South African brand Ruby, in the UK. So, being small, doesn’t mean you’re not brave.
    However (and there is always a however) offering independent brands isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Some suppliers have large minimum orders, or postage rates that have to be added. This is something that I understand has to be taken into consideration from their point of view, but being a small boutique, without the buying power of the big boys, I have to take a big gamble with what I’m buying and then loose some of my small profit on postage, making some brands less appealing than others.
    Whichever way you look at the question there will be pro’s and con’s.
    Yes small boutiques should offer independent brands, but can they afford to do so and will they get the custom?

    Personally, I love coming into my little shop, and the excitement of finding a brand that does everything I’m looking for, and that you can’t find elsewhere, and hopefully, that is why people shop with me.

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