By  on May 7, 2007

By catering to customers' needs and giving them the personal attention that intimate apparel allows, specialty stores can play to their strengths.

Retailers are capitalizing on bra fittings, now standard practice in many stores, expanding the concept into new categories, such as foundations, shapewear and swimwear. Offering more special sizes, retailers provide bra alterations and custom orders for the toughest customers.

Specialty stores also provide hard-to-find colors, styles or product. For Susan Nethero, chief fit specialist at Intimacy, an Atlanta-based specialty store with New York and Chicago locations, bra fitting was unheard of 16 years ago when she began doing it in her store.

Since Nethero's May 2005 appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," fitting requests have increased so much that she now schedules reservations online, similar to the way Apple schedules in-store tutoring sessions.

Inspired by the response to bra fittings, Intimacy expanded the concept to foundations, with lines such as Spanx, and swimwear, with brands like Karla Coletto and Carmen Marc Valvo.

"People expect the attention now," said Nethero, who relishes the information she provides customers and plans to open 24 stores in the next five years. "Women may not realize how foundations can perform for them."

Other services the store offers include free alterations, special events and gifts with purchases.

Like most specialty stores, The Lingerie Shoppe, near Birmingham, Ala., offers novelty products and personal attention, but owner Brenda Meadows also carries some key lines that are in department stores to save customers a mall trip. It's a way of keeping them in her store, she said.

The small selection of traditional department store lines — bras by Olga and Bali, as well as Hanes hosiery — is part of the convenience The Lingerie Shoppe offers customers.

Located in Mountain Brook Village, a main street retail setting in affluent Mountain Brook, a Birmingham suburb, The Lingerie Shoppe's park-at-the-door experience evokes the carriage trade clientele cultivated by the store's founders in 1946. Store windows change weekly and reflect seasonal themes, such as Christmas mannequins dressed as angels in lingerie and elaborate gold wings.

Brides shop for their trousseaux, choosing from Oscar de la Renta Pink Label nightgowns, at $125, to Jonquil peignoir sets, at $500 and up. They also buy monogrammed keepsake handkerchiefs. Customers still can find petticoats, slips and foundations at the store, along with sleepwear from small lines such as Hannah Jammas' mother-daughter pajamas, a bestseller for Mother's Day.Bras are the biggest category and fitting is the store's most painstaking and focused service. Meadows often spends two hours and brings out 30 bras for hard-to-fit customers. With lines such as Chantelle, Wacoal, Anita, Fantasie and Prima Donna, she alters bras and offers special orders if in-stock product doesn't work. Sizes start at 32AA and go up to 42G.

The 1,600-square-foot store had sales last year of about $650,000.

At Rebecka Vaughan Lingerie in Nashville, little is beyond the call of duty.

If an octogenarian calls the 28-year-old family business in a panic because she can't get into her girdle, the owners will make a "girdle lesson'' house call. If a prom queen can't find the right bra for her backless, midriff-less dress, the owners will buy surgical tape and do the pre-prom preparation in the store.

From regular customers tired of shopping malls to those with special needs such as post-liposuction and breast augmentation, they service all manner of customer needs.

"Our selection includes bras, girdles, shapewear, robes, camisoles, hosiery and all kinds of gizmos and gadgets," manager and partner Adrienne Francis said, adding that her bra sizes, 30AA to 52L, and her price range, $32 to $116, are also part of her service.

"Our customer range is extreme. Some drop $2,000 a day here, and others come in by bus and buy one $38 bra they want to last all year," said Francis. "We have to address both. The low end is often the group that keeps us going."

The 3,050-square-foot store had sales just less than $1 million last year.

Owner Rebecka Vaughan said her compassion for customers comes from working for 36 years as a nurse before she opened the store. With bra fittings, special care is given to make customers feel comfortable. Rather than intimidating tape measures, Francis said, "we just measure around the rib cage and eye it. We usually get it on the first or second bra."

The one service the store can't provide?

"Sometimes women demand that we make their stomach 'go away,'" said Francis. "They don't understand that we can't perform miracles."

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