Rebecca Aughton is the founder of Bra-vo intimates
, the largest bra-fitting shop in the Midwest, open in downtown Royal Oak since 2001. The daughter of fabric store owners, her journey to entrepreneurship started during her childhood in suburban Detroit.
After graduating from Western Michigan University, Rebecca embarked on a career in fashion merchandising. She started in the cosmetics division for Chanel in Washington D.C. From there she moved up into the ready-to-wear division as the assistant manager of the Washington D.C. Chanel boutique. She was later recruited into a management role for Silhouette/Hugo Boss to train sales staff for all of the retail stores in the Washington D.C. area. She subsequently served as an account executive for Estee Lauder in New York City.
Inspired to find a solution to the little-discussed common problem of ill-fitting bras, she immersed herself in mastering the art of bra fitting and subsequently became the United States sales manager for Eveden, where she was responsible for the growth and development of the company's brands in the U.S.
At Eveden Rebecca learned from June Kenton, the owner of Rigby and Peller, custom bra-maker and fitter to royalty throughout the world. Rebecca perfected her skills of bra-fitting, working directly with June Kenton, the exclusive fitter to Elizabeth II, Queen of England.
While in Europe, Rebecca added to her already extensive education and knowledge of the bra industry by spending time at a major lace manufacturing plant in the United Kingdom. Here she learned all about the leaver's lace trade, everything that goes into lace making, and the importance of lace to bra design and fit.
When I opened my store in 2001, I had one goal, to supply women with a bra that makes them look better in everything they wear. I realized quickly that to stay in business in retail I had to adapt and change quickly to the wants and needs of my customers. I've been in business for 10 years and have seen drastic changes in the economy and spending habits. You don't have staying power if you don't pay attention to what's selling, what's not selling, and what your customers are asking for.
Eighty percent of women – and 98% of women who walk in to Bra~vo Intimates – are wearing the wrong bra size. I spend at least 45 minutes in the dressing room with a customer during a normal bra-fit appointment so I have plenty of time to get to know my customers and discuss their wants and needs in an everyday bra, shape wear, athletic wear and special pieces.
Over the last few years during the economic downturn, Bra~vo Intimates has seen a consistent increase in sales. In 2010 we experienced a 35.5% sales increase, in 2009 a 16.5% increase, and in 2008 a 15.5% increase. Right now we are currently trending 25% higher.
Retailers have to know what their customers want and in my business their wants are always changing. In the past we sold sleep and loungewear but have noticed that people aren't buying it anymore. We've also paid attention to the changing market and expanded our products to satisfy the needs of the full-figured demographic. This is now half of our business. We found a niche and began expanding by offering full-figured products in a variety of colorful options, which is very rare for plus-size intimate apparel. We host an annual fit event called Plush N Lush specifically for the full-figured woman each October, inviting additional fit experts from New York to assist our customers. We have special offers with purchase and customers can win free product and gift cards.
The biggest concern I hear on a daily basis is that women can't find attractive undergarments. They are over beige and black and they want color. We provide that for our customers, and in 150 sizes.
Each year we try to improve on the holiday season and it's an ongoing challenge in downtown Royal Oak because we don't have a unified theme among all shop keepers in our area. This affects everyone in the retail and restaurant industry and we have to find ways to bring people in on our own.
We anticipate that fashion will always sell, but this year due to the economy basics were the biggest part of our sales. It was a practical year and we've noticed this trend for a few years. Customers are being less frivolous with their money and Christmas has become more and more practical. Couples are buying dishwashers and large TVs, not lingerie.
Our goal this season was to plan as much as possible to cut down on unnecessary merchandise, but as those in retail know, the tastes and needs change in the market all the time. In years past we carried nightwear and pet pajamas. This year we limited the night selection but kept the pet pajamas because our market loves to pamper their pets. We saw the amount of nightwear on the sale racks after the holidays and decided to cut back tremendously. We ordered the same volume without counting on sleepwear in order to reduce mark downs, then I crossed my fingers and hoped would it pay off. We had a 6% increase this December because we eliminated buying the extras. Our success this holiday season is due to the careful attention we pay to our customers' buying habits over time.
My advice to retailers just starting out and hitting the holiday season is to plan six months in advance and plant the seed when you have a captured audience. We create Holiday Hint Cards for women to give to their significant others. These hint cards can be placed on the dinner table, in a jacket pocket, next to the bathroom sink or anywhere it may be noticed. It's an easy way for women to tell their spouses, boyfriends or family members what they really want for Christmas. If you hand these cards to people in the store while they are shopping or browsing they are more likely to act.
The key to improving your business is keeping impeccable records in retail. My secret weapon is the beat book. If you don't have one, buy one, it's worth every penny and one more tool to help you navigate and predict retail behavior.
A beat book allows you to keep records for six years at a time. You trace the day to see why you were or were not successful. Write down the date, weather, promotions, events, advertising and sales. With a beat book I can jump back to the last few Novembers to track sales and try to recreate or improve.
Success in retail is more than stock, image, advertising, employees, planning and budgeting, it's all of these done well and simultaneously. I didn't plan on being in the bra business, I took advantage of an opportunity in my career that took me here. I found a way to change my lifestyle and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. People think retail is easy. It's not.
I started my business plan one year before I planned to open the doors and this is because I had experience in the industry. If you don't have experience I suggest you start planning earlier and find a minimum-wage job in retail to learn WHAT NOT TO DO. There are plenty of great examples of how not to run a business. I also suggest reading as many books of WHAT TO DO. There's no perfect school on retail or really well-known consultants outside of New York, but you must learn accounting, managing, trends and so much more to be successful.
I found a niche and became as knowledgeable about my market and my merchandise as I could. I continue to learn every day. I'm fortunate that over 95% of the women who walk into my store are wearing the wrong size bra. Some are dramatically transformed and others just need a little tweak. My staff and I are always learning and it continues to set us apart of our competition – we learn new brands and new fitting methods and we test every product we sell.
We are making women look and feel better in everything they wear. That is the driving force for all of us. We want every woman to have a great experience and the perception of size is way off in department stores. Not to mention they only carry a few sizes. We carry over 150 sizes.
In our culture it's hard being a woman. There are signs every where telling us how to look, we shouldn't have back fat and our hair should be thick and our lips luscious. It's rough! If you can change the way a woman looks at herself in an instant and all it takes is putting on a bra, that is huge.