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Innerwear is about personal & private retail space

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Being in the innerwear business for almost three-decades Dharam Nathwani, Owner, La Lingerie, understands the demands and challenges of innerwear retailing. He shares with Images Business of Fashion his personal thoughts and the fine nuances of innerwear retailing excellence.

What is driving the innerwear market in India today?
Dharam Nathwani (DN): The increased awareness around innerwear through media and other communication channels has changed the outlook towards innerwear. Initially it was just bought to be worn but now wearing the right innerwear with the right outfit is the emphasis. With more knowledge and awareness we will be able to create a bigger market. For example, shapewear is in rage. But wearing a corset is not the solution. Wearing the right corset for the dress is important. The problem that we and customers then face is that when a company launches a product they do not share such knowledge. A customer has to understand it herself. So there is much importance in spreading awareness and knowledge.

What is the product range available with La Lingerie and what is in trend?
DN: La Lingerie is a multi-brand outlet where some of the very top brands in innerwear are sold under one roof. We keep top of the line brands like Amante, Triumph and Enamor. We are also established specialists in night wear for women, men and children and also renowned for our bridal nightwear. Another category, which we are very optimistic about is the resort wear. Considering the rise in theme parties that take place now a days, we are doing strong business in resort wear. We offer resort wear in fine georgette and embellishments, which Indian women and modern girls can wear like long gowns and dresses with a lot of accessorisation.

Three outlets in Kolkata at City Centre mall, Forum mall and Quest mall. One in Ahmedabad at AlphaOne mall and one in Delhi NCR at The Great India Place. All your outlets are opening in malls. Any particular reason?

DN: Yes we do have a reason and this is because we are not looking at mass population. It is only the niche that we are catering to, that is, only segment A and A+. And this segment we feel we can only capture at the right malls. A mall offers an international standard ambience to the store. In high-streets, innerwear players like us face a lot of objections like you cannot put up an inner wear poster or you cannot put a mannequin display or a window decor, etc. It was important to give the right atmosphere and the right mix of brands the right way to targeting the upper set of customers.

The locations also seem to be very strategically chosen, why?
DN: With the kind of niche customers that we are catering to we were looking for a strong one-to-one experience. At all our stores we have our own persons manning it, that is, a person from the family. Innerwear is a sensitive business and we have to be absolutely certain that there are minimal incidents of misbehaviour and no bad attitude are ever on display when dealing with customers. We had earlier opened stores in Mumbai and Guwahati and received many complaints so we have resolved to always be sure. Just running a store would not be enough, what is important is who is operating the store and how.

What is the strength of La Lingerie?
DN: After being 30 years in the trade one thing that we have clearly understood is that when it comes to buying innerwear, even the most modern women needs her own privacy and her comfort zone. It is a different issue that the product is displayed on the shelf and one has to pick from there. But when she is buying she does not want someone to watch her. So we create that atmosphere in La Lingerie. We impart counselling in lingerie wear at our stores and how to attend customers. And this makes a huge lot of a difference.

Tell us about your web store.
DN: We are progressing on this side very conservatively. We are not selling lingerie online. We are actually focusing more on sleepwear. Also, our online concentration is more towards males because of two reasons—one that women want to touch and feel the products and the second is the issue of size knowledge awareness which is a big problem. We have a no-exchange policy in our online store. We feel that if a customer doesn’t know her size then she should not buy.

A stringent ‘no-exchange’ policy. Why so?

DN: Being in innerwear business for so many years we know that there are many problems with are extremely peculiar to innerwear. Basically without a stringent ‘no-exchange’ policy it is very difficult for hygiene control to be maintained. That is the reason we have no exchange and return policy in our online store. We are doing business online very conservatively and slowly. After studying a few international innerwear boutiques online we have understood that if you do not know the sizes you want to buy then you should not buy online. That is ethical and the right attitude. Hygiene is our main concern and we very strongly and strictly follow it. Even the WHO has declared that undergarments come under hygiene consideration and should be barred from exchange.

Being an innerwear retailer, according to you what are the challenges you face in this business.
DN: Having a trained retail staff is a critical basic challenge in innerwear industry. Often even the staff provided by the companies are not fully trained to handle lingerie at the stores. The companies impart two-months training and claim to us that we are giving you trained staff. But I feel, the staff should be trained for 3-5 years to be competent to handle lingerie. Perhaps even a course for it needs to be brought into the country like an institution and education on lingerie.

Also, attrition rate is very high. A company or a retailer helps complete the training of a staff member and in a meanwhile another company comes and offers her a few thousand more and she moves to that company. So, it has always been a challenge to retain staff in this industry. But we do have to try to retain our staff for another reason as well which is unique to innerwear. This is the fact that when a women customer comes to our store she expect the same girl to deal her. She does not want to or hesitates to open up to a new girl and discuss what her wants. So the reason to retail staff in innerwear is invariable linked to the comfort of the customer as well.

Moreover, opening innerwear stores in mall is also a challenge. We often work on revenue share model with malls but when we have to deal with rentals then comes the problem. Multi-brand concepts and the brands which we deal in leave us with very low margins. That is the reason why you see that not many innerwear MBO stores opening in malls. The rentals are just too high in comparison to the volumes. However, I must share that in AlphaOne (Ahmedabad) we have a good sharing model with the mall. It is perhaps the very right model for a business like ours and naturally we are doing a good business there.