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5 Hard Truths On What Owning a Lingerie Boutique is REALLY Like

Sam Conover is the owner of Broad Lingerie, a brick and mortar boutique in Toronto, Canada, that specializes in bras and swimwear for fuller busts. When Sam’s not working she spends her time making art and thinking about vintage plastics.

The author

Once upon a time I decided to listen to the little voice in my head that whispered “imagine opening your own lingerie store.” My store is now over a year old, and in that time I’ve learned a LOT about running your own lingerie boutique. Owning a boutique has absolutely been the right decision for me, and I truly love what I do. But boy oh boy, are there a lot of misconceptions about what it means to do this kind work.

If you’d ever like to own your own bra boutique, or if you just want a better understanding of how a lingerie business works, I present to you: the cold hard truth.

It’s All About the Money

I have to pay for the items I bring into the store. Once I buy them, there’s no sending them back (unless the items are defective somehow). This is a fundamental fact that many people don’t seem to realize, and it influences every stock purchase I make.

I am constantly balancing my desire to help people with my desire to keep my store afloat. This means I tend to order sizes, styles and brands that have proven sellable in the past, because every item in my store is money I’ve already spent and need to justify somehow. If stock doesn’t sell, it’s just expensive decoration for my stockroom.

Ewa Michalak bra, via Broad Lingerie's Instagram

The Sizes I Stock are a Business Decision, Not a Value Judgment

Broad Lingerie stocks bra sizes from 28-44 D-JJ and underwear from sizes XS to 4X. My most popular selling sizes are clustered in the middle, with bra sizes between 34-38 F to G and underwear sizes L and XL being the most popular. This reflects my particular customer base, not the world at large, and could change over time. But for now, when I place orders, I tend to heavily stock the most popular sizes. This is why I might have 10 different styles in 36FF and only two styles in 44FF.

However, owning a small business and being my own boss allows for some flexibility. For example, 42HH is rarely sold size for Broad - except in the case of one beloved customer who is a bit of a bra addict. So when making fashion orders, I make sure to order fun 42HH bras just for her!

The "Portia" collection by Playful Promises was one of my first orders for my store. I loved the gorgeous colour and vintage styling, plus I really wanted support this independent brand's push into full bust sizing. Unfortunately all the things that made this bra unique (the lower cut cup, the vintage top stitching, the slim straps) made this bra very hard to sell to my particular clientele.

I Can’t Be All Things To All People

Broad Lingerie is a mid-range full bust boutique with a focus on everyday essentials and wearable fashion styles. I’m well aware that my boutique is not the only boutique in the world - or in the city! By specializing, I’m able to set my boutique apart from the pack, and I’m better able to help my particular customer group. While I get occasional requests for styles outside Broad’s wheelhouse (ex. smaller cup sizes and higher-end brands), I have to wait until demand is undeniable before expanding into new areas.

Bringing in new merchandise often means working with new suppliers, and opening up a new supplier account isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most suppliers require minimum opening orders. While some (usually less-established indie brands) have workable minimums of 10 or 20 items, others (usually larger, more established brands) want me to order 100 items on my first order. This could be as much as $6000 for a first order. This is a HUGE risk to take when bringing in a new brand, especially since I can’t fully predict what customers will buy.

This sign is from Broad's Three Month Birthday Sale. Sales are a great way to clear out old stock, show customer appreciation or to celebrate a milestone, but if we had a sale every day a sale would no longer be a special I'd go out of business real quick!

If My Store Was Perpetually On Sale I’d Go Out of Business

Pricing of an item not only covers its cost, it also helps to pay for things like marketing, rent, utilities, insurance and payroll. Markups for a small lingerie boutique (versus a big box retailer) are not particularly substantial. So when I sell an item at a discount it usually pays for the cost of the garment and not much else!

Sales are an important part of retail strategy. They help bring in business during slow times. They clear room for new stock. And they act as a reward to my loyal customers. But a perpetual sale rack would lead to ruin.

Plus, the stock that tends to go on sale is on sale for a reason. Maybe the fit is tricky or maybe it’s a discontinued fashion item, but sale bras are bras I’m having a harder time selling. The sale acts as an incentive to get ‘em out of my store! This is also why popular, easy to sell items like beige t-shirt bras rarely go on sale.

Owning a store means constantly balancing a million tasks. This balancing act means perfectionism is impossible, because if everything had to be perfect, nothing would get done. Before opening my store I was stressing out over all the things that weren't "just so." My ever-patient boyfriend suggested I put all these worries in a time capsule to deal with later. One of the worries is now making a more attractive time capsule!

This is Work

I’m lucky to have an amazing customer base that’s very appreciative of what I do. But I’ve encountered others who seem to hear the words “lingerie” and “retail” and think “frivolous” and “easy.” Working in retail is hard work, and it’s even harder when you own the place!

A major challenge is the emotional labour. Lingerie shopping can touch on deeply emotional issues: getting used to a body changed from childbirth, shopping for date night lingerie while newly divorced, or buying a bra for a preteen daughter who has suddenly sprouted. Just seeing oneself undressed in a mirror can bring up a whole host of body image issues for many people. I do my best to help people navigate these difficult waters, but this can take its toll.

I am lucky enough to have an amazing employee (when she’s not fitting, she writes our wonderful blog), but a lot of what I do is a one woman operation. Beyond fitting and selling bras and swimwear, I’m answering a never-ending flood of emails, negotiating with suppliers, ordering inventory, updating social media, calculating payroll and keeping up with bookkeeping. On top of that, I usually have a few major projects on the go that require serious preparation and research, like opening an online store.

Comexim bra, via the Broad Lingerie Instagram

Broad Lingerie is my dream come true and for me the challenges are worth it. When preparing to open my store, I benefited from the experiences of boutique owners like Erica of A Sophisticated Pair and Jeanna of Bluestockings Boutique, who have the bravery and patience to explain why rather than saying “just because.”

This post isn’t meant to be a series of complaints (although it is that too, a little). Instead it’s a little bit of much-needed transparency in a world that is often deliberately cloudy.

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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.