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Selling Swimwear: A Tale Of Spandex And Self Doubt

Posted 4/19/2012

Editor's Note: The following story was written by Greg Bennett, co-owner of Birthday Suits, for the Board Retailers Association. It appeared in the September 2005 issue of TransWorld Business and was widely regarded as one of the best stories the magazine had printed up to that point.

Tragically, Greg lost a long and heroic battle against cancer in September 2009.

Greg's wife Jill, who continues to make Birthday Suits among the top swimwear retailers in the nation, has graciously allowed us to reprint Greg's article.


A Tale Of Spandex And Self Doubt
By Greg Bennett, owner of Birthday Suits in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

See if this scenario sounds familiar to you. A woman comes into the shop and goes straight to the swimwear department—you know, the place where you have so much time and money invested in trying to figure out what the latest and greatest will be. She selects three or five or ten or whatever your limit is and disappears into the dressing room. Your well-trained staff attempts to help her, but to no avail. After what seems like a long time she emerges and reports “nothing worked!”

Worked!? This isn’t supposed to be work, it’s supposed to be fun! “Is there something else you were looking for?” you ask. “No, I’ll come back when I’ve lost ten pounds,” she replies, heading out the door.

This is the kind of thing that leaves storeowners and managers reaching for the Maalox, and it happens continually in even the most attentive stores. What can be done to make this experience better for all parties concerned? What will make it “work”?

First of all, let’s talk about swimwear in general and the expectations attached to that relatively small piece of fabric. The perfect suit must: accentuate the positive, hide the negative, be just the right color, on the cutting edge of fashion, and remove ten pounds and maybe even ten years. What’s more, it has to do all of this in less than a yard of fabric.

What’s hard about that?

Camouflage may be a new trend in the surf industry, but it’s been a driving force in swimwear sales since, well, forever. We’re not talking about the color scheme but the function of camo—being able to hide in plain sight.

Ask your female customers how they feel about swimwear shopping and the vast majority will tell you they don’t like it at all. In a survey conducted many years ago it rated right under getting a root canal! Why? It’s only a swimsuit! If you think that, then you need to get back to the accessory department. This garment carries with it the hopes of the coming summer as well as the overindulgence of the passing winter.

Women will tell you that they hate to shop for swimwear and yet they never stop shopping for swimwear! They’ll shop for suits twelve months a year. They stand and stare at the rack waiting for divine intervention to lead them to that perfect suit because they believe it exists for them—the Holy Grail of clothing.

Most amazing of all is that this quest has no age range, no cultural bias, and no socioeconomic barrier. It just exists and is very powerful. So given these criteria, how does the average shop deal with this and increase their successes? Here are some suggestions that should help.

Speak Swimwear
I’ve been selling women’s swimsuits for more than twenty years and I’ve yet to put one on. I have no frame of reference other than what I hear and see, and—believe me—I ask questions, lots of them: “One piece or two piece? High leg or low leg? How high is high? Underwire or shelf bra? What colors?”

I speak swimwear to make the customer feel that I know what I’m talking about. It’s a matter of professionalism and in many cases it takes the burden of the search off of the customer. As the salesperson, you assume that burden and join her in the quest. Remarkably, this begins to reduce the stress level and lets you begin to understand the customer’s level of desperation and, coincidentally, how hard you’re going to have to work.

It also gives you the chance to start dispelling some of those swimwear myths that are always hanging around. The ones like, “Suits are only cut for models and people with perfect figures” or “You have to try on at least twenty suits before you find the right one.”

That one always terrifies me.

Know Your Merchandise
Our swimwear is hung alphabetically by vendor, so we can find suits quickly. It’s at this point that I start to pick out suits for them. If they are absolutely opposed to my choosing, I try to scrutinize what they pick themselves.

I firmly believe that if the customer hasn’t found something appealing within the first four or five suits, it becomes an uphill battle that’s likely to be unsuccessful for both of you. The frustration level goes up—“I knew I wouldn’t find anything,” she laments—and doubt enters the picture. Remember, she’s in a very vulnerable state—this is the only piece of clothing that she buys where she has to completely disrobe, look at herself, and then think about going out in public!

Keep in mind many of your customers are buying a swimsuit because they need one, not because they love this experience. They’ll quit in a minute if you aren’t supportive. So, as the salesperson, try to be reasonably sure that what goes into the dressing room is close to what she wants. Try to keep in contact with her while she’s in the dressing room and if possible get her to open the door so you can see what’s working and what’s not.

This will also help you with the next customer because you have already seen these suits on a body. But before she’ll open that door, she has to feel comfortable. It’s incumbent that she has confidence in you. It’s pretty intimidating for most customers when the only thing between them and the rest of the store is a curtain or a louvered door with a screen door hook on it.

I’m not suggesting that you have to build a fortress, but a degree of privacy is imperative. If it’s at all possible, be sure to have a female on staff at all times. That may sound odd coming from a male, but there are some gaps that even experience can’t bridge. And know some swimwear terms: Did you know that the word “surplus” in swimwear refers to a crossover piece of fabric, not an extra amount of inventory that you want to unload? Have a swimwear clinic with your staff once in a while to update them on what they need to know to sell more effectively.

Help Her Select The Suit
Women will oftentimes make their selections by color or print—not a bad idea unless that pretty print has a Brazilian bottom and the only thing Brazilian that will fit this customer is a sandal. You’d better intervene before that suit goes into the dressing room, and try to find an equally appealing appropriate cut. This is also a good time to educate them about sizes: small, medium, and large does not mean sizes 10,12,14. In some cases it may mean 3,5,7. Even sizes (8,10,12) and odd sizes (3,5,7) are two completely different animals. Tell them! Explain the difference between Juniors’ swimwear (odd sizes and S, M, L,) and contemporary swimwear (even sizes). Whenever possible, avoid the term missy (a.k.a. “over the hill”).

I believe that the A-1 rule of selling swimwear is to know what’s on your sales floor. If you have the chance to talk to the buyer, find out why a certain vendor was selected. Who’s the target market and what’s the size range?

Once you and your staff have a grip on this, you’re far better prepared to ease your customers’ pain.

Offer A Good Selection
This brings us to another key factor in successful swimwear sales—selection. You don’t have to carry a hundred vendors but you should strive for diversity. There are collections that fit both junior and contemporary women (read this as teenager and mom). It’s just as easy for both of them to shop as it is for one to shop. Also understand that in today’s world not all teens are Junior and certainly not all adults are Contemporary. So it makes sense to try to offer something that might fit both. If you went into a restaurant and they only served one thing, how impressed would you be and how likely would you be to stay? Certainly it’s very important to know your target market and I’m not suggesting that you add swimdresses to your thong collection, but it wouldn’t break you to carry a few fuller coverage bottoms for the less adventurous.

Again, there are many vendors out there that can help you bridge this gap and expand your presentation. The growth of the separates market is proof enough that allowing the customer more choices brings in more sales. But separates can have their own issues if you don’t reorder often and have a plan for what to do with the leftovers. And there are always leftovers. Talk to your sales reps to see if there is a program that allows you to match up at a discount or, even better, return unsold pieces. Many vendors have separates programs but there are also purchase requirements that may not fit every shop. It’s worth investigating. Some companies are better than others in the separates game. Ask the vendor up front how long items will be available for reorder because little is more frustrating than having your best selling print or style dry up in the middle of your selling season.

Merchandise And Display Effectively
The issues of presentation and display are also critical factors in successful swimwear sales. How your shop treats these garments indicates to the consumer how you feel about the product. Restaurants know all about presentation and some pretty average food can become very appealing if it’s presented properly. The reverse of this idea is that some very good food can be dismissed if it is just slopped on a plate.

The same is true of swimwear. If swimwear is stuck on a lateral rack in the back of the shop, it isn’t going to create too much interest. I suggest that you place it on a faceout with matching coverups nearby. And display by color whenever possible.

The way that you hang your suits is just as important as where you hang them. There’s no perfect method, but you need to be uniform. Few things will deter a consumer more quickly than a swimwear rack that looks like the Gordian knot.

Swimwear is normally quite colorful, so use hangers that “disappear” and don’t detract from those colors. I suggest clear hangers, since that’s what most manufacturers are shipping anyway. Most importantly, don’t forget the cover-up or sandal hook-up. Place those items as close to the swimwear as possible. Most women will tell you they don’t need anything but a swimsuit, but show them anyway—they almost always take it. Besides, what are you going to do with those matching items when the suits are gone?

So at this point you’re saying to yourself “this sounds too hard! I’ll just bring in some more accessories or stuff.” You may be right, but the pay off of a properly run swimwear department can be very rewarding. Consider that the average price of a two-piece suit today is between 70 and 80 dollars, and when you’re able to get that hookup sale you’re looking at more than 100 bound for your coffers. Your numbers can add up quickly but you have to work at it. Commit to it. Believe me, you will create very loyal customers who return regularly, and price becomes less important than success (remember they never stop shopping for swimwear). It is not unusual for a woman who has found the perfect fit to buy more than one color in that item. And word of mouth advertising from one successful fitting is priceless. Yes, selling swimwear is hard, but it’s also profitable and rewarding. You develop customers for life.

So to recap here are my suggestions on how to make swimwear “work” for you:

  1. Speak swimwear and be professional―let her know she can trust you.
  2. Know your merchandise―you should be able to relate to your customer how each suit is sized, how it fits and what each style hides or accentuates (talk to the buyer).
  3. Help her in the selection process―limit the failures.
  4. Have some variety in your selection―give them options.
  5. Display and merchandise uniformly―make it easy. (Remember, they’ll quit if it gets too difficult or involved.)

That’s it in a nutshell. I have tried to highlight some things that I know will help you on your path and if nothing else get you to examine how you’re selling swimwear now. To those of you who have been selling as long as I have, I hope you learned something you didn’t know before. If you knew it all already, I’d like to hire you. If you’re a shop owner who is just getting his feet wet, hopefully I’ve offered you some direction. Plunge right in! I am living proof that a man can make a 20+ year career in the turbulent world of women’s spandex and self-doubt.

And I’ve still never tried one on.

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