Now I Am a Retail Expert: Lingerie and Department Stores

Not long ago while at the Mall of America (I have to admit I was there for this post) I decided to go to the third level of the mall to avoid the crowds only to discover that the crowds are on the third level, crowds of the worst kind.  This is where packs of menacing teenagers hang out — and mostly likely hide out, too — when they certainly should be in school somewhere.   Navigating this level isn’t unlike being tossed real time into an arcade game.  Pods of kids stroll aimlessly in the most inconsiderate maze-like configurations that require a hapless shopper (me) to pinball through the disheveled wreck.

Eventually I made my way to Nordstrom’s and ducked in at Level Three.

Almost instantly I felt uncomfortable.  To the right is a large open lingerie department.  But that isn’t what made me uncomfortable.  For the record, while I don’t have much personal use for it myself, I like lingerie.  There is something very transcendent about lingerie.  I spans both our most private and public lives…and it sells on open floors in full view for all.  Nevertheless, I felt nothing me pulling me toward this display.

Then earlier this week I stopped at Neiman Marcus in downtown Minneapolis.  I was hoping to find a shirt on sale.  No luck.  So up the escalator I go and follow my usual, firmly imprinted path through the store and find myself standing in front of the store’s lingerie department.

This is a bad scene.

If I had a crazy, one-time party girl aunt slipping into her senior years, this is exactly what I would think her closets would look like.  It is a gaudy display of pastels, creams, and blacks punctuated with a splatter of reds, violets, and gold.  Lime green, too.  Just racks of it.  Hanging.  Looking tired and neglected.  Just like the person you don’t want to be if you’re shopping at Neiman Marcus.

Plus the department is empty.  Neiman Marcus doesn’t even bother to staff the department.  I thought I would go in for a closer look.  Here’s what I discovered.

Department store lingerie departments are cold, lonely places.  Touching a silk chemise or a lace panty simply doesn’t seem right.  And if I am going to do it, please send someone over so I don’t mull alone, otherwise I might feel like a creep and mostly likely look like one at least.

The problem is simple.  Lingerie departments are overly exposed to shopping foot traffic.  I write from the point of view of a man and if I really wanted to shop, it would be awkward indeed.  Suppose a friend walked in the store and was seen measuring up a leopard print nightgown, what would that say?  The story tells itself; right or wrong or whatever the story, it tells itself.  Each and any scenario a friend might dream up is true in the realm of gossip.

Suppose a guy is married and bad with sizes and he’s seen looking at a size 2 for his size 12 wife.  Not good.

Maybe he has La Perla dreams and a Jockey budget.  There’s nothing wrong with that; some of us just prefer to keep that from public view.

And just how do you ask your sales person for lingerie set that is comfortable and still something he thinks is beautifully just right for his sweetheart?

See what is going on here?  Department stores need to rethink the lingerie department.  My guess is they lose a lot of business to chains with strong brand recognition AND a good online presence (i.e., Victoria’s Secret) because  who wants to wander through a haphazard display of undergarments alone and in full view of other shoppers?  If a guy buys anything in this environment, he might settle on colorful socks.

I’m sure the same is true for many women, too.  While you do see many more women than men in lingerie departments, they don’t seem to browse and pile on like they do in other departments.

So my advice…create a more inviting, comfortable, and somewhat discreet place to sell lingerie.  Turn down the lights — create a mood — and soften things a little.  Ditch the chrome plated racks — unless, perhaps, you’re selling something from Bordelle — and display your wares on themes with a more luxurious feminine touch.  Make buying something as essential as an undergarment a rewarding experience and you might sell more.

I would mix styles, brands, and price points some, too.  Maybe Jockey along side La Perla is unlikely, but mixing luxury could spur the imagination.  Or perhaps a guy shopping for cotton briefs might have a change of heart if he finds a lace and silk garter set.  Same for the girls.  If all the fun stuff is in one corner and all the practical stuff in another, the two may never meet…at least not in a department store.

Finally, helpful sales people in the lingerie department always should be present to reassure, guide, and sell the product.  Take it from me, a newly discovered retail expert, shoppers don’t like to feel clueless, they certainly don’t want to feel silly.  A lingerie department might be that one place when a gentle and available sales person waiting in the wings would be appreciated.

My rule of thumb here:  Unless you’re attending racy parties, lingerie is something more private than public.  Selling it should be just the same.


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