Retail Advice: New Lingerie Buyer Guide
“Buying lingerie is an art form in the sense that you must use your intuition to choose styles, cuts and colors that you think will appeal to your specific clientele,” – Jennifer Manuel Carroll
by Jennifer Manuel Carroll
A life-long lover of lingerie, Jennifer Manuel Carroll has shopped for underpinnings during her travels in North America and Europe and is a savvy lingerie expert. After years of experience in the intimate apparel world, she was inspired to share her knowledge with others. Carroll is the author of Underneath It All, A Girl’s Guide to Buying, Wearing and Loving Lingerie (Harlequin 2009), a comprehensive resource for the lingerie lover and novice alike.
I have been attending lingerie shows and buying intimate apparel for nearly a decade. For me, attending these venues and catching up with my vendor friends is the most enjoyable and fun part of owning a store. This New York trip, however, was a different experience for me entirely. This past summer, I sold my business to a fellow entrepreneur who has worked for me on a part time basis for years. And at the last CurveNY show in August, I took the new owner, Lindsey, with me to the show to introduce her to the wonderful world of buying lingerie.
Hardly a novice, Lindsey has worked with lingerie for years (she worked on and off in lingerie stores since high school). She can easily identify what she likes, and what will most likely sell. While going to market can definitely be overwhelming, viewing the NY Curve expo through her eyes– and observing her interactions with the vendors and products– I realized how truly overwhelming the overall buying process can be.
Above: Buyers with Markia Vera at the Lingerie Collective NYC
“Choose the brands that are the right price-point or positioning for your clientele.”
Buying lingerie is an art form in the sense that you must use your intuition to choose styles, cuts and colors that you think will appeal to your specific clientele. For example, perhaps tomato-red is the “it” color for spring, but your clientele doesn’t wear that shade of red. But buying is also, quite importantly, a numbers game. Understanding the price-point or positioning of each line. Comprehending what size runs are best for each piece ordered; and knowing what your budget will allow you to buy for the season (regardless of your desire to buy the entire Mimi Holliday line–like I do).
For the newcomer or novice, there is so much to know, plan and prepare for before you buy at market. Here are a few things to consider at the inception of your business, and before attending a market for the first (and subsequent) time.
Choose the brands that are the right price-point or positioning for your clientele. Do you have trendy clients, or are your customers more conservative? Are you located in an affluent neighborhood, or near a college? The brand’s positioning typically reflects its price point, and sometimes its style. In lingerie, you will typically find the following:
- Designer/High End position refers to brands at the highest price point, such as Lise Charmel and Hanro.
- Bridge is the position between a better and designer brand, such as Chantelle. In ready to wear, bridge is sometimes called a secondary line, which means that it is a less expensive line from a designer brand. For example, Mimi Holliday is a secondary line to Damaris, its UK parent. B.Tempt’d is Wacoal’s secondary line.
- Better Positioning refers to lines with retail price points up to $100, such as Carole Hochman and Felina.
- Contemporary is a term typically reserved for ready to wear, but you will sometimes find it represented in lingerie. This position refers to trendy, fashion-forward merchandise.
Now that you have decided which brands to carry, you need to assess which size runs are best for each brand and style ordered. Sarah Platt of the SF Showroom, who represents lines such as Fleur’t and Montelle, says that the largest mistake that new buyers make is that they buy too many sizes—oftentimes buying a full size run in every style bra, when they should really only buy certain sizes in a certain style.
For instance, if a particular style bra is a better cut for small busted women, the assortment purchased should reflect those smaller sizes. During merchandise selection, it helps to look for what I call the three Fs: fit, function and fashion.
- Fit – Does the merchandise have a fantastic fit? A bra or chemise can be beautiful on the hanger, but a nightmare to fit on the body. We have all had the experience of trying on a beautiful dress or top that is cut all wrong, it never makes it out of the fitting room. If it doesn’t fit, don’t buy it.
- Function – What is the function of the item, and will it do its job? For example, will the push-up bra give cleavage; will the panty function under clothing? Will the shapewear piece work under a dress (i.e. be invisible)? If the function of the lingerie is strictly bedroom or seduction, that is its function, and that is okay, too. The item must perform its function, and do it well.
- Fashion – Is the merchandise in vogue? Even basic bras should reflect the trends. Look for fashionable touches that show the item is updated and fashion forward. For example, t-shirt bras in updated colors; camisoles with in-style prints or modern lace and sleepwear with the latest RTW trends incorporated.
Arguably the most important part of purchasing inventory is establishing a budget. If you are a small store (under $200k in annual sales), you should set a budget for each month working with your open to buy system with room for reorders. If you are an online site or a large brick and mortar shop with a brand track record, it makes sense to allocate a certain budget for each vendor. For example, if you sell through your Cosabella consistently, give Cosabella a nice monthly budget. Don’t cut in to that budget for a new or independent vendor. Your budget is an imperative plan that will prevent you from under or over-spending.
Budgeting for eCommerce
If budgeting for an ecommerce (direct) site, plan to order wide to start (lots of sizes, less units per size), not deep (several units per size/style). You want to start with enough inventory to offer something for everyone (size-wise), but you don’t want to invest deeply in your inventory until you know what your most popular sizes will be.
In addition to understanding and creating a budget, it is important to learn the basics of retail math. I found a great resource online that explains the nuts and bolts of retail math.
Above: Claudette at the most recent edition of CurveNY
When buying, keep in mind that you want to create an inventory assortment that merchandises well together. Sarah says that a big mistake new buyers make is that they often pick what they think is pretty without considering how everything will be merchandised in their store (or online). It is best to have color schemes in mind when buying. Also, choose a good assortment of what you need, such as basic and fashion bras, panties, sleepwear, pajamas, accessories, and a wash. This will guarantee that you have an assortment of the necessities to complete a lingerie wardrobe, while the color stories will create a cohesive presentation, and therefore an exceptional shopping experience for your customers.
Above: Buyers at the Eveden booth at CurveNY
“Create a good relationship with your vendors (brands) from the start. These are, in effect, your business partners.”
Create a good relationship with your vendors (brands) from the start. These are, in effect, your business partners. An experienced vendor knows their line comprehensively; you can trust them to help you with your buying decisions. It is typically always in the vendor’s best interest for you to be successful with their line, because they want you to reorder and come back season after season. Be honest and ask a lot of questions about the merchandise they are showing you.
Here are some key questions to ask when investigating a new brand:
- What is your minimum opening order in regards to styles and dollar amount?
- Do you have a basics or ongoing line that can be reordered?
- How long do reorders or replenishment shipments usually take to arrive?
- What is your reorder minimum (style or dollar amount)?
- If you operate an ecommerce site, you may want to inquire about drop-shipping and private label opportunities.
- Ask about the best-selling items, and start with those. If you are a boutique with a niche market, the rule may not apply. If you run an ecommerce site, start with the sure-bets.
- If you offer off-price goods, inquire about past-season stock and other off-price opportunities with the brand. You will be surprised at the deals to be had, even with high-end labels.
Careful product selection is one of the key elements to running a successful retail business. There is so much to consider when setting out to buy next season’s merchandise.
Being clear on your brand positioning when choosing your inventory is essential. Sticking to your budget will keep your margins up by ensuring you don’t overspend; as overspending often results in additional mark-downs at the end of the season. Choosing your product assortment with an overall vision for presentation in mind will guarantee a cohesive look and feel in your store. Starting and keeping a good relationship with your vendors will assist in your business success, now and in the future.
With proper planning and care, you will have a successful trip to market and choose the best product assortment for your business; turning the sometimes overwhelming experience of buying into a fun and prosperous affair.
Need More Retail Advice?
Check out Jennifer’s previous articles HERE.