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.

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