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:
- I have a more consistent customer service experience online.
- I have a better selection of brands, styles, and sizes online.
- 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.
- A boutique will rarely carry a brand new label. They want to see several seasons of work before making a commitment.
- 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.
- 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.