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Retailers versus Consumers: The 28 Band Bra Debate

Image via Freya

Image via Freya

One of the requests that came out of the survey was for more articles that dealt with the business side of lingerie. I write lots of marketing advice articles, but I don’t write much about the specific issues. Part of this is because general issues for me often become work specific issues and client confidentially comes into play or because at the end of the day I’m so exhausted that I can’t deal with thinking about this stuff anymore. I’m hoping that this will be the first in a series of articles that will explore issues in the lingerie world from both a business and a consumer perspective. One of the things that I see the most is consumers and businesses pitting themselves on opposite sides of issues unintentionally. By pulling back the curtain, so to speak, I’m hoping that I can help us all understand each other a bit more so everyone can work together!

Today we’re going to tackle a difficult issue in the lingerie world: 28 band bras.

The charts that I’ve included below are from the brave Erica at A Sophisticated Pair, since she was good enough to publish nice scientific sales figures. To my expert eye, her sales figures are fairly representative of industry trends as a whole so they’re a good visual aid for this kind of thing. What I also like about Erica’s sales figures is that they’re fairly size accurate – most of her customers are measured in store, so we know that there shouldn’t be a huge difference between perceived bra size and actual bra size.

The divide between retailers and consumers over 28 (and 30 band bras to some degree) is both simple and complicated. Retailers feel like these bras sell in fewer numbers, are returned more often and generally consider them high risk stock. Consumers who want bras in their size claim that retailers aren’t offering enough choice in 28 bands and that they would make more sales if they stocked more options. So where’s the truth? Like most things, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.

Stores are obviously driven by profit, so let’s start by talking about sales trends and demographics. Erica’s sales of 28 and 30 band bras have risen by 0.94% since last year. This shows a definite uptick in real sales, which matter to retailers. However, you have to put this in context.

Check out this chart:

Image via A Sophisticated Pair

Image via A Sophisticated Pair

See how sales skyrocket from band sizes 32 to 38? Even with the increase in 28 and 30 band sales, it’s just a fraction of the money that Erica’s store made this year. As she says in her very smart blog series, this isn’t surprising as the average US woman is now a 12/14/16. Her most popular brand is Elomi and she can literally sell eighteen times as many 32DDD’s as 28DD bras.

There are other problems with 28 and 30 band bras from a retailer’s perspective. Women in these sizes tend to be younger and therefore don’t have as much disposable income. Returns in these band sizes are also high. We’ll talk about why in the consumer perspective section, so keep it in mind for later. From a business perspective, returns are a hassle and require paying people to deal with them. Often returns end in refunds, which basically means that you’ve put out money in terms of staff hours to deal with what is essentially a loss. Sizes that have a high return rate are considered higher risk and companies are understandably unwilling to stock a wide variety of bras that will just be returned or go unsold.

I’ve heard lots of talk about the new luxury small band large bust companies popping up, which I think are relevant to this discussion. I’m thrilled about the styles that these new companies will be bringing a badly needed part of the market, but I think luxury items in this part of the market will be a hard sell. After all, if you can’t sell a $50 bra profitably why would you stock a $150 bra in the same risky size range? I predict these companies will need to develop a following and do some serious e-commerce to stay profitable. In this case, they can sell directly to customers more easily than they can to some retailers.

Let’s move on to consumers, who obviously have their own valid opinions about this situation. There are lots of reasons that consumers believe that demand for these band sizes aren’t being accurately reflected. Some of these include:

Women are wearing the wrong bra size, which commonly leads to women wearing a larger band than they need. If more women wore the right band size, there would be more demand for smaller bands. Like I said, this isn’t reflected in Erica’s statistics, but I suspect would be a large part of the statistics of a place like Figleaves or Bare Necessities which aren’t measuring customers themselves.
Retailers aren’t stocking enough variety in terms of shape. Since bra fit is about more than the numbers, if a retailer only stocks two 28 band bras that aren’t the right shape for you, they won’t see a sale at the end of the day. By stocking a great variety of 28 band bras, customers could find more to buy. This also plays into the high returns issue.

All of this brings us to the current situation. Retailers are understandably reluctant to take on more high risk stock, while consumers are logically against keeping bras that don’t fit them for the sake of generating sales figures.

I wish I could end this article with some pat piece of wisdom, but I don’t really have one. The issue is complicated and probably has to play out longer to come to some conclusion. Having three luxury small band full bust companies enter the market soon will be a game changer and probably either show that there is a big market for this or that it ultimately isn’t profitable at all except on a very small scale.

Do you see any solutions for companies and consumers? What do you think of the potential luxury market for small band bras?

21 Comments

  1. Great discussion, Holly! I think there Needs To Be A Lot Of Out Of The Box Thinking About How To Approach These Issues. One Idea is To Identifyi Retailers Who Want To Encourage New Designers And Work Closely With Their Customers. Growth Would Probably Be Slow, But the Chance Of Long Term Survival Much Greater.

    • I think that’s a great idea, although I haven’t seen a ton of crossover between retailers who like to take chances and retailers who deal with full bust customers. For example, Lille Boutique carries tons of interesting brands that you don’t see other places but is aimed at women who aren’t particularly curvy. Do you know of any boutiques who are taking risks and catering to non-standard markets?

  2. These points are so well-considered. I don’t know what the answer is either. What I can say is that my 13 y/o (who is very slender with a loose under bust measurement of 27.5) can barely tolerate a 30 band – and I’ve measured and tried every option. I mean, I’m a bra-fitter at heart and I even make bras. I suspect the demographic of women who want 28 bands are actually very small-framed with a rib-cage padding. How many bra-buyers identify in that way?

    • I think you’ve hit on a great point – to buy a 28 or a 30 band bra, you have to identify as a customer in that size. And that doesn’t take into account that some women like to add inches for comfort, to help with back or spine issues, etc. I think that’s part of the complexity here: more customers are identifying as 28 bands but it’s not reaching a watershed mark where it’s enough to change the buying habits of retailers. There are far more women who identify themselves as 32 – 38 band sizes.

      • This is fascinating to consider…how many of us identify as a certain band? I hadn’t thought about it in this way but it was a light bulb moment for me to stop adding the 4 inches to my underbust measurement.

        • I do think lots of people identify with a certain band size, even though they’re really just numbers. I think this especially prevalent when you get into traditionally “plus size” band sizes, which to some people help them identify as either fat or not fat. We really put a lot of feelings into these kinds of measurements.

    • Yes, I believe having “padding” is the key! I measure at 28 but I’m boney. (It took me years to find underwired bras that didn’t give me bruises on my ribs.) I wear a 32 band and have one bra with a 30 band. I have to say, the 30 is not as comfortable, nor is it easy to find to see if it would be more comfortable in a different brand or style.

      I know I’m not a common size because if they have my size on the rack, there is only one. I understand stores not wanting to carry what they don’t sell many of.

    • Barely tolerate a 30 band? I’m surprised. I have a very bony ribcage, Completely exhaled it measures 26″; fully inhaled 30″. With a couple of exceptions 30 bands always ride up my back.

      • I actually think this series of comments highlights exactly the sort of sizing issues that make things hard for retailers! One person’s ribcage measurement and shape may put them comfortably in totally different sizes, so I can’t imagine how retailers feel when they have to predict demand for certain brands and sizes.

  3. Excellent points all around. As you say, time will tell.

    I don’t understand why petite/little bra retailers don’t pick up 28 bands in bigger cups, especially the online petite/little bra lingerie stores. Why do they only go up to C cup? A petite frame is a petite frame, regardless of cup size.

    • I agree! I think a logical market would be petite brands, as many petite clients also have smaller ribcages. I feel like the surge is in D – H brands and 28 bands though, which is probably a harder sell for stores who are looking at their internal statistics.

  4. As always Holly you’re post is so well written!
    Firstly, I feel the BIGGEST way for us ALL to move forward is to unite. Brands to retailers, retailers to consumers and lingerie blogs have a BIG role in that as all because we tie everything together and a whole bunch more….anyway my thoughts are….

    1. I see and respect everyone’s choice and opinion.
    2. If you look back into the history of bra sizes for long time it started at 32 and finished at a DD cup now it took around 7 years for the wider population to realise AND come to terms that cups sizes go way beyond a DD cup and band sizes go smaller then a 32. Now of course MOST women know that there is a wider size range but A LOT still do not so you can understand the hesitation with 28 debate.
    3. It will take time to educate the wider community there is no doubt about that BUT if we WORK TOGETHER if will happen.
    4. Brands need to understand that it won’t happen over night and consistency and unison is the key. Perhaps they can be little bit more flexible with retailers and give then support with this.
    5. Retailers need to be OPEN to expanding their size range and monitoring their stock sold like our good friend Erica.
    6. Retailers who are open and willing to take a calculated risk will thrive. those who are not will continue to be OK.

    We all need to remember that for companies to make and ENTIRE size range is BIG BUCKS and a lot of units hence why from a business perspective they need to assess their size range.

    A lot of this is driven by fear and uncertainty, they are two places you can not draw inspiration or sales from.

    Love your work Holly

    Rx

    • Renee, I love that you’re willing to lend your expertise to this discussion!

      “A lot of this is driven by fear and uncertainty, they are two places you cannot draw inspiration or sales from.” is such a relevant part of this discussion. I do think there is a divide where retailers are wary of the new stuff while customers are demanding something different. I’ve always thought of indie lingerie companies as the place where new trends and customer demand meet, which lets larger companies see how those new concepts will work as part of the general market. I do think that customers want lingerie to get excited about rather than lingerie that merely serves a supportive purpose. Look at how companies like Elomi have reinvented themselves to cater to the fashion customer rather than someone who is just stocking up on the basics.

  5. I am a tall and thin hourglass shape so finding clothing/lingerie has always been a battle. I only exist clothed because of companies and retailers taking those chances on the riskier sizes. Yes, we return these items more often because we have no choice. It is usually our only way to try them on since these sizes are almost never carried in b&m stores. Since carrying stock in a b&m location is also money out I guess it can only come down to the reality of what costs less overall. So somewhere something has to give b/c I need clothes and having everything custom made isn’t even remotely financially feasible.

    Which leads to the next issue of luxury brands. I have purchased some luxury bras in the past. One of them I even purchased in a band size too large full well knowing I’d have to have it altered down because I liked it so much. However it’s been my experience that those luxury bras in the end didn’t last long enough to recoup the extra cost back in more wears. Freya fits me best and I still haven’t found another brand that fits me as well as Freya usually does with the same cost/wear. Since Freya is the only brand I’ve found that works for me I am definitely open to trying new brands but only if the cost is about the same. Unless a design of a set really takes me I won’t spend 100USD or more on a bra.

    It pains me to see those numbers when it comes to the 28 bands. I measure 26″ around my ribcage; I need those 28 bands! I have found two bras in a 30 band that work, one is discontinued and the other is still made but has the wrong cup shape for me. I realise that we might not be your most profitable size but custom made bras are *expensive*! Far outside of what I can afford.

    • I hear this all the time from consumers and I think it’s really true. If stores carried more options, they would see fewer returns. I suspect that online stores budget for higher returns to start with, since there isn’t a way to measure people like there is at a traditional boutique. I’m glad to see you mention Freya, since their 28 band bras seem to be hugely popular and they are promoting them very well. I think more brands would do well to emulate their marketing methods.

      Thank you for weighing in on the luxury brands issue! I think that is a big issue for customers: if your Freya bra fits, what can companies do to get to you spend $40+ more on a bra? It’s definitely something for these new companies to think about as they start their big marketing pushes for the beginning of their launch cycle.

  6. Great Article! We are a relatively new small online retailer and have just started to venture into offering a larger selection of 28 and 30 backs. We have experienced a higher returns rate on these on comparrison to other sizes and its always difficult as a online retailer as we are not able to fit each bra. Its a difficult balance as we too know that many are not wearing the right size bra and in our experience you can often go down at least one back size and up 2 cup sizes for a better fit. We currently stock or special order in bras from Panache, Lepel, Charnos and for those with a slightly higher budget Chantelle Paris. We also will soon have Passionata to add to the list.

  7. Holly, this was a wonderful article and a fantastic idea for a series! I have a lot of things I’d like to respond here, but I’ll save them for another blog. Suffice it to say, however, that I feel like manufacturers, consumers, and retailers need meet together and improve the communication. If there was more collaboration with retailers and their customers, I think we could work together to find solutions to lack of 26-30 bands, smaller cup sizes, larger bands, and any other group outside the mainstream.

  8. Awesome article and comments! I custom make bras here in Brisbane, Australia and travel to Melbourne and Sydney to help the ladies with their bra challenges. We also offer a repair and alteration service and regularly alter the backs of bras to help with the fit. Maybe the lingerie shops need to offer this type of service, generally it is not difficult to take the back in. And we also put new backs on bras, so can make the back longer to help with larger band sizes with smaller cups. Sorry this won’t help the American ladies! Warm regards Linda

  9. Great article, I think there is a demand for them, great to see companies address this. When I ran my brand ‘Vanjo’ a 28FF was one of the best sellers. Having worked independently and also for high streets, the problem is apparent in the fitting, one company I worked for still used the 1950’s size chart so the model who I would fit as a 30D was there 34B model, so from that alone they saw no need to go smaller than a 32 back as to them it didn’t exist.

  10. I work as a bra fitter at the top luxury lingerie boutique in New York City. I think something we have to consider in Erica’s statistics is also demographic by location. Erica’s customers are probably much different from my customers.
    Many of the customers at my boutique are very very wealthy (toss around Hermes and Celine bags while dressed in Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler type), on the younger side (21-40) and more slender than the average American dress size statistic. I’d say most of the women coming through our stores wear between a size 0 and 8 but we definitely have a variety beyond that. We get a lot of executives, lawyers, chefs, editors, moms, students, artists, stylish tourists, models, broadway actresses and famous movie actresses (Kate Upton, Meg Ryan, Helena Christensen, Miranda Kerr have stopped by).
    I measure A LOT of women at sub 28, 28 and 30 bands with larger cups. The most popular sizes I sell are 30e, 30f, 30g, 32f, 32g, 32h. The 36 and 38 bands move very very slowly and usually sit around several seasons until they’re marked down. I rarely fit anyone into 34b and 36b. The 30 bands are the first to sell out. The management recommends upselling 30 bands to women who should be wearing 28 bands because we don’t carry the 28 bands. We have a lot of women coming through the doors requesting 28e, 28f, 28ff, 28g etc. Many of the women who want to be wearing 28 and 30 bands “settle” for 32 bands because certain fashion styles/brands are not made in smaller bands. The biggest customer complaint about this type of sister sizing is that their “boobs don’t look as good in a beautiful 200 dollar bra that is 2 bands too big compared to the 70 dollar matronly 30g bra.”

    Finally, the last note, there are many slender women who are afraid of getting fitted because there is a floating stereotype in our society that slender women cannot have a full bust line and if they do then it must be implants. There’s an idea that DD+ must mean “plus size.” Both of these are total misconceptions but it only reinforces reluctance to get fitted.
    I’ve had to really work into the hearts of women who come in wearing 32b, 34a and 34b and they are too afraid to get fitted because they think they will be a “negative A cup.” But they actually work best with a 28dd or 30d or something along those lines. Many of these women HATE bras and HATE bra shopping and want to avoid the situation all together (they originally come in trying to buy panties…) because they were probably teased at some point in their lives. These women are not seeking bra fittings but are suffering from lack of lift, falling straps, moving underwires and bands and they blame themselves. These women are absolutely misunderstood but left without help in silence…
    There are many variables to consider in your casual market observations. Unless a formal, peer reviewed market study is done then I’d say all casual statistics are incredibly flawed.

  11. Really liked this article as it discusses a problem I deal with myself. I think a lot of women are probably wearing the wrong size a. because we’ve never been properly measured before and b. because most stores don’t stock anything lower than 32b. I think the reason stores see a low return on smaller banded bras is because we’re used to having to wear bigger band sizes, therefore a lot of women probably think that’s their actual size and so, wouldn’t try the smaller banded size on. Definitely think more retailers should offer smaller banded bras but also women need to measure themselves or get measured so that they know what size they really are.

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