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Lingerie comes out of closet as it catches internet bug

Traditionally women in India have been at the mercy of salesmen with little knowledge of lingerie. So, most of them have ended up buying less than perfect fits, if not downright uncomfortable.

businesspaper Updated: Jul 11, 2016 19:35 IST
Representative Image.
Representative Image. (HT Photo)

For six years Arpita Ganesh made a living by helping women choose the right size of bra. It’s not an easy garment to buy, and the wrong choice can lead to prolonged discomfort. But only when Ganesh went to a fitter in New York eight years ago did she realise that bra-fitting is close to being an art.

When Ganesh took to it, she found herself spending half an hour on each customer. That’s more than many tailors spend on taking men’s suit measurements. Sure enough, when Ganesh decided to turn entrepreneur and set up Buttercups to sell lingerie online, providing the right fit was on the top of her agenda.

But you did not have to have helped 3,000 women choose the right size of bra — as Ganesh did — to crack the formula for selling lingerie online. Buttercups is one among half a dozen companies selling lingerie online, starting with Zivame five years ago.

Richa Kar, Zivame’s founder, comes from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, known for Tata’s steel factory. But whatever their background, the people selling women’s innerwear online knew there were problems to solve, and fit was the biggest, but not the only one, of them. So did broader e-commerce companies, such as Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal, ShopClues, and Paytm, who have a large number of their buyers in the small towns.

Traditionally women in India have been at the mercy of salesmen with little knowledge of lingerie. So, most of them have ended up buying less than perfect fits, if not downright uncomfortable. And since buying of undergarment has been a hush-hush affair in a country, the transactions had to be closed quickly. Women settled for the safe colours: black, white, or beige. The shops in small towns won’t allow trials, and deny returns if the buyer found the fit wrong after trying the garment at home. Many women will also testify to encountering salesmen who had a way of making them uncomfortable.

To all those women who braved the vagaries of lingerie shops, modern chains such as Shopper’s Stop provided much relief — literally and figuratively — but these were limited by their reach. The real deal is online — and that does not mean just discounts. On the internet, there is no salesman, only a questionnaire to arrive at the right fit, and an explosion of colours and designs. There is lingerie for every occasion: for going to office and for an evening out, for weddings and for maternity. The fit changes with the material, patterns, and brands. And yes, you can return what you do not want.

“All these years women bought bras based on band sizes, they didn’t think of the cup size,” says Neha Kant, co-founder of Clovia, another lingerie e-tailer. For men who want to buy bras for their partners, there is a gentlemen’s guide.

Clovia’s website doubles as a style guide for women, who are discovering a brave new world. For instance, says its founder Kant, women like to combine a neon bra with a white top. Then there are colourful elastics, embellishes, colourful racer-backs, and contrasting colours that peep out of tops.

The number of orders for the first one off the blocks, Zivame, used to be 3,000 in the beginning; it has gone up 26 times. The total online lingerie sales in the country have grown to $264 million from $30-40 million in 2012. As internet users in India are expected to double by 2019 to 664 million, online lingerie sales are expected to cross $1 billion.

No wonder Zivame has raised $49 million. Kar, its founder, wants to change the way women buy lingerie in India, just as Victoria’s Secret did in the US. “We want to make lingerie buying vibrant… the bra is an accessory, it’s fashionable… we work with a network of global designers.”

E-commerce also gives access to buyers in small towns to styles not available in physical shops. Zivame delivers to 4,500 pin codes. Kant of Clovia says 65% of her orders come from outside the metros. These are cities and towns that provide 55% of Amazon’s orders for women’s innerwear. “Customers in smaller towns get access to our entire range — 50,000 unique products from 500 brands,” says Puneet Gupta, head of apparel category at Amazon India.