New online tools to find the best-fitting bra s
ONLINE retailers like HerRoom, True&Co and some stalwarts like Maidenform are trying to reinvent shopping for bras, which account for nearly half of the $14 billion annual lingerie market.
The retailers are vying to draw women away from in-store fitting rooms and persuade them that it is more convenient and private to use new online tools to find the best-fitting bras.
Proper fit is so central for women that 20,000 of them signed up within 36 hours after True&Co, a San Francisco start-up retailer for intimate apparel, opened its Web site in May. Two former Microsoft employees devised a computerized method to connect customers to a correct bra fit.
“It’s one of the most emotional purchases out there,” said Michelle Lam, one of those former employees and chief executive of True&Co. “There are a lot of body image issues around buying a bra.”
Specialty stores, along with outlet stores and Web sites, are siphoning off bra sales from traditional sellers like department stores. Victoria’s Secret and Soma Intimates (owned by Chico’s), which also have Web sites, had $3.6 billion in bra sales last year, according to NPD Group research.
Department stores trailed with $1.1 billion in sales, according to NPD figures. Online sales are still a small percentage of overall bra and intimate sales, NPD estimates. So far in 2012, sales have risen 1.5 percent at outlets, mass merchandisers and the Internet, according to NPD figures.
“E-commerce is becoming more popular because women don’t want the same experience they’ve had” in the stores, said Susan Anderson, a retail analyst for Citi Research. “Department stores haven’t changed their intimates departments in decades, and consumers are more willing to buy now online.”
Last year, bras made up 45.8 percent of intimates sales, which also include panties and shapewear, according to NPD figures. The average price of a bra is about $65 at higher-end sellers and $13.90 at mass marketers, Citi Research found.
Online retailers are trying to address women’s consistent complaints about the experience of buying bras in stores. Women bemoan the long wait for sales help and then the failure to find a bra that fits well and looks good. Using surveys and questionnaires, online sellers are finding out details about body type that are crucial to a correct bra fit but not easily shared with a sales person.
“Specialty retailers have been able to capture the fashion part of it,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD Group’s retail analyst. “But the Internet provides an unlimited supply of product, and a broader assortment of styles to find a bra that fits better.”
Online questionnaires, like the “Know Your Breasts Bra Finder” set to be introduced Friday on herroom.com, put forth more than a dozen questions, including the spacing of breasts, their fullness, shape, position, breast bone prominence and shoulder slope.
“I want to take away the misery of buying a bra,” said Tomima Edmark, founder and chief executive of HerRoom. The Dallas company, begun in 1998, carries more than 200 brands, including Vanity Fair, Wacoal and Spanx.
“The industry is heavily skewed to certain sizes and colors,” she said. “The sweet spot is 32B to 38D, which most manufacturers make. But other sizes can be more difficult to find, and there is no consistent cup sizing.”
Ms. Edmark, who also created the TopsyTail hair accessory, spent years collecting information from expert bra fitters, designers and manufacturers, as well as feedback from clients. The new breast analyzer, she said, “will help women to explore the specific attributes of their breasts — many of them they have probably never thought of — to find the perfect fit.”
Web sites like Soma and Victoria’s Secret and Maidenform’s Bra Finder require a measuring tape, but HerRoom and True&Co focus on the customer’s self-assessment. True&Co, for example, asks about breast shape, dress size and current bra size and comfort.
Ms. Lam and another former Microsoft employee, Aarthi Ramamurthy, were commiserating about bra shopping experiences over coffee last fall, and concluded the market was ready for a more scientific method of shopping.
“Each place I tried told me I was a different size,” said Ms. Ramamurthy.
After fittings and consultations with experienced fitters — “the kind who know what size you are when you walk in the room,” said Ms. Lam — the pair developed an algorithm to come up with bra choices, across brand lines, based on a two-minute quiz on its Web site, trueandco.com (the ampersand version was already in use). Five bras that fit the profile are sent to the customer for a $45 deposit. She can chose any or none of the bras, and pay for what she buys. Shipping is free.
So far, Ms. Ramamurthy said that its technology found customers reporting “that three out of five styles in their box of bras fit well.”
Sales are increasing, said Ms. Lam, who declined to disclose financial figures. She said the company is planning “to build an online destination for everything underneath the dress.”