If you follow lingerie retail at all then you'll know this year has been a wild one. Category standard bearers like Victoria's Secret have downgraded earnings estimates while Agent Provocateur slipped into administration only to be bought by, of all people, Sports Direct's Mike Ashley.
And in the midst of that swirling cloud of confusion, newcomers like Lively, Negative and Adore Me are having one of their best years on record. Something's up; and we've figured it out. First off, it's got a lot, if not everything, to do with the following piece of information.
In the last three months, sell outs of push-up bras have fallen by 50% compared to a year ago while sell outs of bralette, or triangle bras, have rocketed by 120%. That's based on a sample of 80 lingerie retailers across the US, UK and Europe.
Along with that comes the revelation that padded bras, the segment's most stocked style, have fallen by 22% over that same period of time. Ladies and gentlemen, the status quo has left the building.
If that feels strange, this next thing feels almost alarming. Those 80 lingerie retailers–which include Victoria's Secret, Nordstrom and House of Fraser–have reduced newness in the padded bra category by 38% in the last three months compared to one year ago.
The same figure has also been shaved off push-up and t-shirt bras, while maternity bras are down 55%, strapless bras trimmed back by 50% and balcony bras have cut back 40%.
Overall, the number of bra styles has shrunk by 16.5% in the last three months. The bralette (up 18%) and sports bra (27%) are the only areas displaying growth. Anyone who's tracked the rise of athleisure, or marked the prevalence of sneakers in the work place probably saw this one coming.
Consumers want functional and comfortable apparel. Sports bras and unstructured bras are–for many–more comfortable than their reinforced counterparts. But the trend towards ease has come at a cost for the lingerie market. Bralettes are on average 26% less expensive.
Number of push-up bras down 38% while bralettes are up 18%. Average price on a bralette is 26% lower.
Soft-formed bras cost less to manufacture, resulting in a lower retail price point. The math is simple, you have to sell more of them to hit the same sales figures as padded or push-up bras. And yet the wearer doesn't need to own any more of them than they would the higher priced styles.
That gives retailers two choices: reach more customers or get repeat hits from existing bralette shopper by reminding them the product is a hot trend still. Which so far they're doing.
In February 2016, retailers began to increase mentions of the bralette/triangle bras in their newsletters and the trend gathered speed; by September new arrivals were peaking, and communications spiked.
There was a quieter patch through gifting months (functional undies don't make the most indulgent presents) but mentions soared again this February when new arrivals grew 29% compared to February 2016.
The increased efforts in speaking about bralettes is further compounded when you look at data around price. The charts below show retailers have shunted their price emphasis in the bra category to lower price points.
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We've seen that bralettes come in on average 26% cheaper than a push-up bra ($54.16) and sports bras on average ($43.50) are 20% cheaper. These new product lines are competitive: we can see that in the way retailers are moving to fill their lower price points across the breadth of the industry. A year ago, 21% of Marks & Spencer's new bra arrivals were priced beneath $20. This year, 73% are.
Bergdorf Goodman's recent new-in focuses 44% of their bra products priced below $50, whereas last year that was little more than one per cent. Even Calvin Klein increased its emphasis on the $20-30 price point by 22%.
Victoria's Secret have launched a new product which gets the balance just right: the sports bralette. The style arrived online on January 1 and is now sold out across six colors and four sizes. At $20, the shape sits some way beneath the average price on a balcony bra at the brand: $53.25.
How to keep customers shopping?
Trends within the trend. Retailers need to break bralettes and sports bras out from trend status and add them to their core selection, just like t-shirt bras and plunge styles. That'll make space to tune into trends within the style. Try the following:
1. Super seasonal color palettes - with the influx of sheer fabrics for Spring 2017 (and the trend set to continue through fall), bralettes and triangle bras are going to be on display. Make sure you're running the shape in the most nuanced of seasonal palettes. Right now that would be 'millennial pink', murky khaki, navy and soft yellow. For Fall, jade teal, burnt sienna, grape and red.
2. There are striking trends within bralette shapes such as cage detailing, front-fastening, halter neck and racer back shapes coming through.
3. Build price point with finer fabrics, higher quality lace, embroidery, velvet trims and metal fastenings that add value.
4. Seeing as this trend is all about comfort, find the softest bamboo, Tencel or jersey fabrics and look out for wicking properties.
Here are some of the bestsellers from the last three months: