SPECIAL REPORT: Independent lingerie retailers call for more support from suppliers

Sheila Wilson, owner of Sugar & Spice Lingerie, based in the Isle of Wight.

Independent lingerie retailers have voiced their concerns over a lack of support they are receiving from their suppliers as they face tough trading conditions on the high street. In this special report, they make a call for action and suggest ways in which brands can help ease the pressure.

In today’s volatile retail market, independent lingerie retailers need all the help they can get to meet the needs of their customers, but many are complaining that their suppliers are failing to deliver the fundamental resources and services they need to maximise crucial business opportunities.

This is a serious issue that, if left unresolved, could lead to the extinction of these small high street businesses, along with the quality fitting services they provide.

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Since January 2017, Lingerie Insight has reported on at least eight independent shop closures in our industry, many of which were mainstays of the high street for over a decade.

Rising business rates, online competition and a lack of consumer confidence following Brexit can all be linked to the downfall of these stores.

But there are also wider issues facing independent retailers that can only be resolved with the support of their suppliers.

So which areas of their business are independent retailers lacking support in and what can brands do to turn things around?

Michele Poynter, owner of Mish in Cornwall.

Education and marketing
Social media has provided retailers in every sector of the high street with a platform to connect with the consumer and build brand awareness since its invention.

But while social media is being used for positive self-promotion, it is also allowing unqualified individuals or groups to share misleading advice on products and vital services.

“I have lost count of the number times I have seen people asking online questions similar to ‘where can I find a non-wired 40J that isn’t too high in the middle, gives lift and doesn’t cost more than £20?’ or ‘a 36K sports bra that actually works and I don’t want to pay more than £30 because it’s a rip off?’,” says Michele Poynter, owner of Mish, a lingerie and fitting specialist based in Cornwall.

The problem, says Poynter, is that many women don’t understand the work that goes into making a high-quality bra, or the value of a bra fitting.

One the things lingerie brands can do to resolve this problem is to invest in education, she suggests.

“Brands need to champion retailers which offer a quality bra fitting service and promote the skills and expertise these retailers have,” she adds.

Nicola Adams, owner of Tallulah Lingerie in London’s Islington, agrees that lingerie brands need to do more to promote their independent customers.

“I do wish the brands would offer more support to us boutiques. They generally have a much bigger budget for marketing and advertising than us small guys,” she says.

“We do our job of merchandising and lovingly selling their collections in our stores, so the least they could do is to support us, even by mentioning us on social media. They would gain new customers that way, so it’s a win, win.”

Nicola Adams, owner of Tallulah Lingerie in Islington, London.

Sarah Connelly, owner of Odyssey Boutique in Edinburgh, notes that the high level of service that small independent lingerie boutiques provide should not be taken for granted.

“Ultimately, I see retailers as the customers of the brands; not the middlemen getting the product to the end consumer. We’re experts at what we do; fit with precision, know the stories of all the brands we stock, understand the technical expertise of every garment, and with this provide a personal service not comparable to the bigger stores,” she explains.

“Our budgets and buying power are considerably lower than the high street giants (it has to be understood we’re entirely different markets) but our service is award winning.”

Connelly resolves that reciprocal marketing and being listed – and promoted – as a local stockist would make an “enormous difference” to her business.

“Kudos to Panache for launching their Click-Fit-Collect service and championing the expertise of small business 100%,” she adds.

See-Saw Lingerie in Hale, Manchester, would also benefit from being listed as a local stockist on brands’ websites, says owner Johanna Bolhoven.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve asked to be included on a brand’s store directory, to no avail,” she states.

Bolhoven also believes that brands should provide accessible tools, such as campaign images, to make marketing as hassle-free as possible and help independents meet the needs of their customers.

Sheila Wilson, owner of Sugar & Spice Lingerie in the Isle of Wight, agrees: “I value the support we get from our brands, particularly with marketing materials such as window kits and promotional images, which we can use on social media and our own websites.”

Extra training for her team would also help drive sales, she notes.

“Fitting schools are good, but I would like to think this could be taken a step further and for us to become accredited in some way,” she explains.

“This would enable the discerning customer to make a choice between the plethora of retail outlets that provide a ‘fitting service’ and those of us that are experienced professionals.”

Sarah Connelly, owner of Odyssey Boutique in Edinburgh.

Minimum orders
One of the main challenges independent lingerie retailers face in the day-to-day running of their business is the high minimum orders that their suppliers require from them.

“Brands need to be realistic with their minimum order requirements,” says Bolhoven.

“We often don’t have the cash flow for high minimums or we miss out on satisfying customer orders because the customer can’t wait for us to get a minimum order together – something that can often take a few weeks – so they
go elsewhere.”

Connelly explains that revising “eye-wateringly” high order minimums accordingly would allow lingerie boutiques to remain niche.

“We’re an army of stylists who want to offer the very best quality, fit and design aesthetic to our discerning clients, but we’re forced to stock fewer labels in higher volumes, which means we’re unable to offer a depth of choice. This ultimately removes the designers we’re forced to drop from the consumer’s stream of conscious too,” Connelly reveals.

Stock replenishment
Not only do independent lingerie retailers lack the cash flow for high minimum orders, but their lack of floor space means they simply can’t hold a large volume of stock.

This means that they need to order replenishments on a just-in-time basis, according to Wilson.

“Fairly frequently all suppliers will be out of stock on basic, continuity items. This leaves us with gaps in stock for considerable periods of time and a lot of frustrated customers. I will certainly be dropping at least one brand this season because of this,” she warns.

Wilson suggest that brands should improve their availability across continuity ranges and develop business-to-business systems so retailers can check which lines are in stock.

Johanna Bolhoven, owner of See-Saw Lingerie in Hale, Manchester.

“The B2B system that some suppliers have does help, as we can see instantly the items that appear to have stock problems,” she says.

“All companies could be better at informing us if they have problems with stock availability of a range – if we know about it, we can work with it.”

In terms of non-continuity fashion ranges, some independent retailers like Sugar & Spice would like to see these run for two seasons in order to get a better sell through.

In addition, lingerie brands could help make the high street the go-to place for new styles.

“They could deliver fashion lines to high street retailers a number of weeks before online retailers or make an exclusive colour, which is only available on the high street,” suggests Poynter.

The timeliness of deliveries is also important, says Wilson.

“Because of internet shopping, consumers expect items to arrive the next day, and expect us to achieve the same. Whilst we can of course explain this won’t be the case, some companies have a lag time of nearly three weeks from when we order to when we receive the product. That’s simply too long,” she insists.

There’s a place for all lingerie retailers, across all platforms, to provide women with high-quality products and services.

But, sadly, independents are being forced to compete with much bigger players on a shoe-string budget and with a lack of resources.

Lingerie brands must therefore do more to support these businesses by listening to their needs, or else face losing a vital section of the industry.

“We must work as partners to preserve the integrity of both our businesses and the strength of community in this exciting industry,” says Connelly.

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