Regional focus: South East lingerie boutiques

Georgina Willis, owner of Guilt Lingerie in Petworth.Georgina Willis, owner of Guilt Lingerie in Petworth.

We meet five independent lingerie retailers based in the South East of England to find out how business is faring and how the high streets in their local areas have changed over the years

Loncherie
Owner, Carolyn Hardman
Location: Farnham, Surrey

When and why did you decide to open a lingerie boutique?
I took over the business, with my husband’s encouragement and support, on October 1, 2016, having worked for the previous owner since Loncherie first opened in 2010, and then managed the shop for her for a year before she sold it. It was a pure fluke beginning at Loncherie as I’d just returned back to the UK from living abroad for three years, and had never worked in lingerie or retail, although I have a textiles background. But I started at the right time, right place, and six years later, I’m the owner.

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How’s business faring at the moment?
This time of year is always busy for lingerie and nightwear. Economic uncertainty is, of course, worrying, but the business is well-established, has an excellent reputation, a loyal customer base, and new customers regularly find us.

What is it like running a boutique in Farnham now, versus when your store first opened?
Retail has obviously changed over the last six years and will continue to do so. And, in order to keep up, the shop needs to evolve also. The internet has such a huge influence but, really, nothing can beat a physical shopping experience.

What are your best-selling brands and products?
PrimaDonna and Marie Jo have always been our best-selling lingerie brands and continue to be so. Everyday basics sell well all year round, along with fashion ranges. Empreinte lingerie is also a sought-after brand.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?
It’s always good to introduce lesser-known brands and ranges of the same high quality, as an alternative to the best sellers, giving customers more in-store choice. I also make sure that I have a few truly stunning collections to catch the customer’s eye, for that ‘wow’ factor, along with regularly updated attractive window displays.

Where do you see the future of the high street heading in your local area?
I think consumers are becoming more and more aware that it is really important to support local high streets, and the media is encouraging this too. Farnham is a popular varied shopping destination, with many independent and high street retailers, so it certainly has the potential to have a favourable future.

What are your plans for the New Year?
New Year is always a good time to promote fitness, including Anita sports bras and briefs, after the Christmas excesses. I’m looking forward to the Spring/Summer collections arriving, along with new season swimwear, as we plan to refurbish the swimwear area.

Odette Lingerie
Owner, Liz Brighton
Location: Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire

When and why did you decide to open a lingerie boutique?
I have worked in the lingerie industry for over 30 years, with experience on all sides of the fence, from owning my own luxury brand in the 80s and early 90s to managing a boutique in London, working as a brand agent and teaching lingerie making. My ambition has always been to get back into retail and have my own shop again, and following a major lifestyle change in 2014, when I moved out of London, I spotted a gap in the market in the local area and decided to make it happen. The shop opened in February 26, 2016.

How’s business faring at the moment?
The response since our opening has been fabulous and we are building up a solid customer base who love our customer service, expertise in fit and interesting brand selection. Business was incredibly strong in the weeks following the launch of the shop and throughout the whole of the summer. We are very excited at the moment in the lead up to our first Christmas, especially as it’s giving us a chance to showcase some of the more high-end ranges of our brands.

What is it like running a boutique in Old Amersham now, versus when your store first opened?
As we have only been open for 10 months, it’s hard to make out any buying trends quite yet. However, it is clear there is a gap in the market for a quality lingerie and swimwear boutique in the local area, with many of our customers delighted they don’t have to go into London anymore to get personalised service.

What are your best-selling brands and products?
We stock a range of carefully selected brands at different price points and sizes from an A to an H cup, so with the right service and guidance there really is something for everyone. Our most popular brands include Wacoal, which is great for everyday basics that fit well and look attractive, and Empreinte, which is incredibly popular for the fuller-bust customers, as their bras not only fit amazingly, but are beautiful. We are also doing very well with our Laurence Tavernier nightwear and loungewear.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?
Professional customer service is absolutely everything to us and our growing customer base seems to prove this is the way forward. With my extensive knowledge of the industry I have created a carefully curated selection of high performing brands in the shop, which is something our customers feel is not available elsewhere.

Where do you see the future of the high street heading in your local area?
Old Amersham has a thriving high street and is a real destination, with lots of good quality shops, restaurants and hotels. Hopefully, it will remain the same into the future if landlords and agents work together to encourage the right mix of retailers. Despite the current trend for online shopping, a lot of people still appreciate good customer service. If retailers play to their strengths and present in-store buying as a special experience then I see a rosy future.

What are your plans for the New Year?
Due to the initial overwhelming success of the shop opening, the actual launch party has been repeatedly delayed, so we are definitely throwing a big first anniversary party in February. We also plan to launch our website, which has also been delayed for the same reasons. We are also going to focus on promoting specific customer events and building up our client base through targeted marketing and PR.

All About You
Owner, Jules Fryer
Location: Reigate, Surrey

When and why did you decide to open a lingerie boutique?
Noticing a need for professional lingerie fitters and having worked in the industry previously, I felt it was time to open a lingerie boutique in our town. We opened in December 2014 and we are going from strength to strength, working not only with fellow independents, but with our local hospitals, helping ladies who have undergone surgery and being an extra person to whom they can turn.

How’s business faring at the moment?
We have been lucky; business on the whole has been improving year after year. Recent events, Brexit to be precise, did have an impact on business for a short time. However, when the dust settled, business went back to normal.

What is it like running a boutique in Reigate now, versus when your store first opened?
It can be challenging. With a lot of people relying on online shopping, there is no guarantee of footfall. However, we are very lucky in that our focus is always on fitting. From this, we have built a very loyal customer base who refer others to us.

How have buying habits changed in that time?
Bralettes, triangle bras and longline bras have become key pieces for both fashion and day to day wear. Fortunately, our brands have followed these trends, offering a variety of styles, plus great fit and support – something that not all high street retailers can achieve.

What are your best-selling brands and products?
PrimaDonna, Marie Jo and Maison Lejaby have a strong customer base. Ladies who wear these brands love the fit and comfort they offer.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?
I don’t necessarily think it is about staying ahead of the competition, but working with them. If we are genuinely unable to help a customer, we would recommend a fellow independent that we know and trust, where they would get a similarly high level of service as they would from us. We are also very fortunate to work with fellow independent clothing, bridal, health and beauty and hair boutiques in Reigate.

Where do you see the future of the high street heading in your local area?
Reigate has an amazing high street with a broad variety of shops and, at the moment, I can only see it going from strength to strength. December 3 was Small Business Saturday, which happened to coincide with the opening of the town’s Christmas market. The town was buzzing and I believe all the shops were thriving. Events like this
help all the independents to attract new customers.

What are your plans for the New Year?
We are working on a few exciting things at the moment, such as events with fellow independents and possibly adding a couple of new brands to the shop.

Sheer Delight
Owner, Julie Drummond
Location: Godalming, Surrey

When and why did you decide to open a lingerie boutique?
I had moved from Yorkshire, where I worked as a Civil Servant, to Surrey in late 2000. I moved because I had met Paul, who is now my (second) husband, and he had been buying me lovely lingerie and hosiery. Our first idea was to open a Wolford boutique because they were promoting business partnerships at the time. This did not work out, but it did lead to me opening Sheer Delight. We opened the door to business on February 2, 2002.

How’s business faring at the moment?
October and November are traditionally quieter months and December generally does not get into full swing until the second or third week.

What is it like running a boutique in Goldaming now, versus when your store first opened?
Running the store is very different from 15 years ago; I have a large loyal customer base, I have greater product knowledge and have built very good business relationships with suppliers.

How have buying habits changed in that time?
Over the years, we have seen a big change in men buying lingerie for Christmas. For us, that element has reduced, but not completely. Women buying shapewear for their Christmas dresses has slowed because there are fewer Christmas parties and women no longer wear hosiery as much as they once did. However, there is greater awareness of women recognising the benefits of a quality bra and a professional fitting service.

What are your best-selling brands and products?
For us, the PrimaDonna Deauville bra outstrips the sales of any other product we sell. A close second is the Marie Jo Avero bra. These are two brands and two collections I could not do without.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?
Delivering high quality products with a professional and friendly fitting service – good service is king.

Where do you see the future of the high street heading in your local area?
Godalming is a small market town and there is a vibrancy because there are many independent shops – all delivering great service and quality products.

What are your plans for the New Year?
Plans for 2017 include more focus on swimwear – we opened our Beach Lounge in January 2016 and we now have room to expand on this product offer.

Guilt Lingerie
Owner, Georgina Willis
Location: Petworth, West Sussex

When and why did you decide to open a lingerie boutique?
I opened a lingerie boutique 10 years ago in a small market town in West Sussex that had a growing fashion offering, but no lingerie shop. I needed a challenge at the time, so switched from French decorative antiques to French decorative underwear.

How’s business faring at the moment?
Despite increasing competition from the online market, business is faring well. We decided to go online ourselves two years ago: this complements our business. However, at the end of the day, bras need to be fitted professionally and our expertise is sought and appreciated. This cannot happen online.

What is it like running a boutique in Petworth now, versus when your store first opened?
Running a boutique in Petworth has certainly become easier. There is a great loyalty to Guilt and a growing mix of up-market stores in the town. We have become a destination, and so too has the town.

How have buying habits changed in that time?
Buying habits have changed in that customers may not buy the huge quantities they used to, but what they are now looking for is quality and longevity.

What are your best-selling brands and products?
Guilt sells a mix of products that complement lingerie: cashmere, beachwear, silk etc. Our best lingerie group is Van de Velde, followed by all the top French brands.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?
By going to Paris to see all the trends and products. Only then will we make our selection based on what we like, rather than what the supplier is trying to sell to us. We are very price aware and pass the best value on to our customers. We also mix our offering and keep the customer surprised.

Where do you see the future of the high street heading in your local area?
Large high streets are dying out. There are just too many multiples who are the only ones that can just about afford the rent and rates. Parking is generally a nightmare and expensive, whereas small independent shops in small market towns thrive and are certainly taking business away from the traditional high street. They also offer a different mix of high-quality products that are not often found on the high street.

What are your plans for the New Year?
We plan to expand, and, within the shop, to promote the crossover of lingerie, sportswear and lifestyle.

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