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Personal service, selection

Retailers respond as women demand more from their bras

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / February 1, 2008

Usually, Michelle Hylan walks into a lingerie shop and asks what bras they have in her size. But at Intimacy, a new undergarment store in Copley Place that Hylan visited this week, her shopping took an unexpected turn.

The Boston resident was led to the back of the small shop, where bright, spacious fitting rooms take up half the store. Trained bra fitters spent about 20 minutes with Hylan, bringing her bras they selected, and telling her — like most of Intimacy’s new customers — that she was wearing the wrong size.

‘‘It was a huge eye opener for me that I’d been wearing the wrong bra size most of my adult life,’’ said Hylan, 36, who spent about $300 on two bras and four pairs panties, not including another two bras she special ordered. ‘‘It was very empowering.’’

Over the past few years, major retailers and specialty stores have been ramping up their intimate apparel business and emphasizing customer service. JC Penney, for instance, created a new private brand and brought the product to the main floor, front and center. Upscale stores like Bloomingdale’s are hosting bra fitting events and increasing fit training for its sales professionals. And even regional specialty stores, such as Lady Grace, are adding more dressing rooms and expanding their bra selection.

Retail analysts say the new focus on service, coupled with growing consumer awareness and technological advances that promise better fit and more comfort, has given a boost to the bra business. After years of relatively tepid growth, bra sales have soared more than 16 percent since 2005, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

The business has also benefited from the Oprah Winfrey effect, with the talk show celebrity hosting ‘‘bra intervention’’ episodes, featuring experts including Intimacy’s founder Susan Nethero and Nordstrom’s top bra fitter, Sandra Saffle. And popular makeover television shows like Bravo’s ‘‘Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style’’ dedicate a segment every episode to proper undergarment fit.

To keep up with the new interest in intimate apparel, many retailers, including Intimacy, are importing new styles, sizes, and fashion from Europe.

In fact, since entering the US market in 2002, French lingerie brand Simone Perele experienced huge growth, featuring the latest technologies like 3D foam, which knits together three layers of breathable fabric to create a seamless molded bra with subtle enhancement. These bras cost around $70.

Krista Tonra, general manager of Simone Perele’s US business, attributes some of its success to aging baby boomers who are more attuned to treating themselves well and have the resources to spend on the most innovative undergarments for their changing bodies.

The Copley Place store will serve as the prototype for Intimacy’s future stores — with an increased focus on fashion, larger fitting room spaces, and higher quality merchandise. Intimacy carries 90 sizes of bras, with hard-to-find sizes from 32A to 48K, and they range in price from about $50 to upwards of $120 each. It’s a huge premium, given that women on average spend about $13.57 on bras, according to NPD’s latest research.

Intimacy, which has four stores across the country, plans to open another two this year, in Miami and Houston. Nethero hopes to bring her brand, featuring collections from Prima Donna and Chantelle, to every major US city in the coming years.

Customers can make appointments online and receive free fit advice and tailoring. Intimacy’s bra specialists typically go through one week of training and learn to fit women without using a tape measure, making sure shoppers have the right cup size, proper support, and snug fit against their rib cages.

‘‘This is not a product women can buy on their own,’’ said Nethero of Intimacy, which opened its first Boston store in December. ‘‘It’s a very technical product.’’

Big department stores, along with specialty stores, also are putting a big emphasis on the bra business. At Bloomingdale’s new stores, for instance, the intimate apparel department features larger fitting rooms and new amenities to better serve customers.

‘‘We thought improving the look and service in intimate apparel was key,’’ said Elizabeth Hospodar, of Bloomingdale’s intimate apparel and hosiery department.

Lady Grace built its reputation on service. Still, Lady Grace co-owner Bruce Green said the 71-year-old company has had consistent double-digit growth in its bra business over the last several years, triggering the 11-store chain to add more bra styles and fashion.

Five years ago, bras made up about 40 percent of Lady Grace’s inventory; today they account for two-thirds of the merchandise. A store in Woburn, which opened recently with five fitting rooms, is already getting a makeover to double that number so that customers don’t have to wait.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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