Founder of lingerie independent The Pantry Underwear, Eloise Rusted, tells Drapers how the fit-focused business is navigating a new socially distant reality.
Rusted opened the first of The Pantry Underwear’s three stores, in Camden Passage, Islington, in 2016. Her mission was to “abolish the dread of underwear shopping” through expert, approachable fit guidance and an eclectic product mix. It stocks 22 brands, including household names such as Sloggi, Spanx and Panache, and British independent labels including Dora Larsen, Lilliput & Felix and Genevieve Sweeney.
Since then the business has expanded: it opened a shop-in-shop at department store Liberty London in 2017 and a standalone bridalwear store, The Pantry Bridalwear, in Saffron Walden, near Cambridge, last year.
Eloise Rusted, founder, The Pantry Underwear
Rusted tells Drapers it was a relief when the government eventually told stores to close, as they could “pivot” to an adapted online offering. This involves a new approach to product pages with better imagery, specific fit advice for every style, and clearer links to associated items and care information.
The business has also launched a FaceTime fitting service for customers.
“It’s both informal and informative,” says Rusted. “We don’t inspect bare breasts in front of the camera – we review fit in an existing style.
“Clearly we can offer our support and knowledge from a safe distance, and I hope to harness this [post lockdown] and improve processes, particularly streamlining communications while not losing that personal touch.”
Staff have been contacting customers with outstanding store or loyalty credit to help them spend online and making “informed suggestions based on their purchase history”.
However, as a fit-focused business, The Pantry Underwear’s customer service approach throughout the crisis has been “labour intensive”: “A significant proportion of women want to try before they buy in the underwear sector. The purchase from afar is deemed riskier compared with other fashion categories as the fit is arguably more complex.
“Our customer service approach throughout this crisis has been labour intensive because we are continuously speaking to those engaging with the brand in an attempt to ensure the purchase is successful and to limit returns.
“For example, if someone has purchased a combination of products in the same size, when we would [in store] advise adjusting the sizing across the mix, we will advise them of this before shipping.”
During the lockdown, pyjamas, loungewear and wire-free bras initially saw a sales spike. However Rusted says “now the purchasing behaviour is more broad and often informed by what styles are curated within our seasonal edits”.
The ‘Comfies Collection’ and ‘Escapism Edit’ have been presented to customers via the online storefront and on social media.
“Remaining visible” to consumers throughout lockdown has been extremely important for the business.
“We have placed more emphasis on our content schedule, sharing more video with more of us [the team] such as product review piece ‘Bra of the Month’ and our recipe series ‘From our Pantry to Yours’,” says Rusted.
Many independents are increasingly concerned about high stock levels coming into autumn 20, however The Pantry Underwear does not invest heavily in seasonal pre-orders.
Rusted only forward orders with a “handful of brands that we have the most successful relationships with”, normally with an element of exclusivity.
“These key partnerships give us an edge in the market, and by working collaboratively to spread and introduce the stock that is actually available, we hope to be able to offer newness through AW20 without receiving unmanageable stock levels,” she says.
For autumn 20, depending on reopening schedules, she plans to create a seasonal edit trialling new British independents.
She adds: “During seasonal times, we often look to trial new brands for a limited time, which our audience won’t have previously seen and which align with our own British independent credentials.”
The government announced earlier this week that non-essential stores, such as The Pantry Underwear, could begin reopening from 1 June. However, Rusted is concerned that there is “not enough legislative information about how we ‘should’ reopen to determine exactly how this will happen”.
“We are attempting to plan how this could happen - the experience will look different, but it won’t feel different and actually our mission to educate women as to how to tell whether a bra fits or not for themselves, will I believe be delivered more effectively,” she says. “The bra fitter will be able to observe but won’t necessarily be able to ‘take over’ when it comes to determining fit.”
She tells Drapers they may not open all sites at the same time and will likely work on an appointment basis to begin with.
Her advice for other independents: “Stay strong! The public have a lot of love for independents at this time and we must capitalise on this and use it as a platform for building long-term relationships. Think about advocacy and loyalty incentives, before you think about going into sale.”