Q&A with Debbie Donelle, owner
Ted Vayos, BODY: Describe your store for our readers.
Debbie Donelle: DEBra Lingerie was opened and designed to accommodate our main purpose: to provide professional bra-fitting services. The store was opened in Montreal as the first independent retail location in the area to provide such services, as well as a range of bras and swimwear for the D+ cup woman. Montreal is a bilingual city with a strong French culture which has been reflected in their lingerie stores: beautiful French lingerie is easy to find but it is not the best fit for many of the women in our city.
After I had the privilege of receiving a professional bra-fitting in London in 2009, it literally changed my life and how I viewed my body. I wanted to spread the word and provide other women with the opportunity to have such a positive experience as I did. It was not difficult to see that the women of Montreal were in general not wearing the proper bra-size and many of them seemed to be D+ cup sizes with very little offerings in quality lingerie. Since I had a business background, the opportunity turned into a business plan and the rest was history. We chose this spot in Montreal as it was close to the main highways to access the suburbs and metro line as we correctly expected to become a destination retailer.
I wanted to build DEBra Lingerie as a relaxing environment with a focus on the fitting rooms. Just over 25% of our floor space is dedicated to the fitting experience and we have lots of room for the client and her guests to sit and move around to test out the bras. Our bra-fit specialists normally bring the bras to the clients, so we have many bras hidden from view. It is not the kind of store that you come into to browse.
Our main product offerings are bras, swimwear with bras built into them, matching underwear, shapewear and other accessories like soap.
Ted: What makes your store special?
Debbie: DEBra Lingerie is more like a beauty salon than a standard retail store. Clients make appointments and are then assigned a professional bra-fit specialist to work one-on-one with them during their time in the store. An average appointment takes 45 minutes. The client is treated to an “uplifting” experience where we start with their bra-fitting and then educate them with “Bra 101”. After their bra-fitting, we then assist the client in finding their perfect bra(s) depending on their desires, the shape of their breasts and their body type. It is a very personalized and customer-oriented service.
Ted: What do you look for in a brand?
Debbie: The most important things we look for in a lingerie/swimwear brand are: Larger cup sizes (up to a minimum offering of G-cups), excellent and consistent quality, selection of different styles and a reasonable price point. Quick delivery time is also important as we make many special orders for clients. At this point in our business life, our most important brands are FFY Garment and Eveden. We try many different bras on our clients and these two suppliers offer all of our important criteria plus great delivery times. They also provide great customer service to the retailer which is a rare quality in other suppliers.
We have recently brought in a new bra from Elomi called Bijou and it is exceptional. It is flying off of the shelves and we are restocking it weekly. They have perfected the smooth t-shirt bra in a way that conforms to different breast shapes and also makes a woman feel sexy with the plunge cut. Oh, and it’s supportive and comes in a great bright colour. It is giving the Maxine bra from FFY a run for the title of most popular bra in our store.
DEBra Lingerie also carries swimwear with full bras built into the garment. Funny enough, we sell a lot of swimwear in the winter months as our clientele looks to escape our cold winters with a vacation down south. Other than that, we carry a small amount of shapewear and some great lingerie soap; Eucalan.
There have been many situations that I have been disappointed in a supplier however that disappointment is short-lived if they resolve the issue in a timely manner. Follow-up and communication are key. Broken promises are the worst because I then lose credibility with my clients and that definitely sours my relationship with the supplier. In the current economic reality, a brick-and-mortar store has to compete with other stores and on-line stores. Customer service is essential to our success, so if a supplier interferes with us providing exceptional service, we use them less.
Ted: Describe popular styles and trends in your area.
Debbie: Although it is not my personal preference, almost 75% of the women who currently enter our store want a smooth t-shirt bra that does not show their nipples. In general, most of them also want smaller breasts! We cannot accommodate on their breast size, but we do try anything possible to make them more comfortable (figuratively and in actual fact) with the body that they have. Women are so hard on themselves, so if we can make them like their body a little bit more, then we have achieved our mission.
Ted: Describe your price points and size ranges.
Debbie: Our price range is from $59 - $130 with our average price being around $80. We do not charge for our fitting services and have been counselled to increase our price to cover the additional costs but we have not yet done so. Our mission is to provide reasonably priced lingerie to our clientele who need it. We currently offer bras in band sizes of 28-52 and cup sizes of D – N (North American sizing) although we will provide bra-fitting services to anyone who requests it, regardless of cup size.
Ted: What is your typical or average customer size?
Debbie: Our average cup size in North American sizing is 34G. Most women come into the store thinking that they are a 38DD but I digress… One of our biggest challenges is to convince and show our clients that a D-cup is not HUGE. It all depends on the band size and most of them are not aware. Once they get over the “cup-shock”, then we can bring them to the point that they are happy in the bras that they put on.
Ted: What does your average customer spend per visit to your store?
Debbie: Our average sale per visit is probably around $110 although it depends on the day and does not take into account any special orders placed. Some days are “one-bra” sale days and other days we sell 4-5 bras per client. It is hard to predict, but our average is probably around 1.5 bras per client per visit. We also do a lot of special orders for clients since we don’t have the space to provide 150 sizes with lots of styles and in each color.
Ted: Describe your customer.
Debbie: The DEBra Lingerie clientele is 99.9% female and the average age is around 40 years old. Due to the nature of our precise fitting services, it is normally the women who do the shopping for themselves. We do keep information in their client file if they would like a particular bra as a gift, but it is rare for someone to come and pick a bra for the woman in their life.
Ted: What has impacted your business the most over the past year?
Debbie: Since we are still in the “start-up” business phase, we are still working out the kinks and trying to track the trends to our sales and profitability. On a positive note, our business continues to thrive mainly due to word of mouth advertising from our existing client base. We continue to grow as a result and are now also benefitting from many repeat customers.
The negative impacts were largely out of our control; the bad winter weather and Quebec politics. The cold and long winter of 2013/2014 had a direct impact on our sales and not in a good way. Clients did not venture out at all, let alone to buy bras! We were hoping to have a lift in swimwear sales as clients escaped from the weather but that did not materialize. On the up-side, we have had a few more new clients who are pregnant and need bras in the D+ cup range. Nothing like a long, cold winter to bring about a baby boom!
Not to go into the boring details, but the province of Quebec went through a tough election campaign with all signs leading to a separatist party gaining more power in Quebec. This party is not good for business in Quebec and clients were nervous and holding onto their disposable income a bit more than normal. At the end of it all, the good guys won but the impact on our local economy was still felt.