What Big Brands Can Learn From Independent Retailers

Is bigger always better? Large retailers with multiple locations and a global reach seemingly have infinite capital and resources, but this can come at a cost. The decision makers in these companies are often far removed from their customers, and any initiative to lead change can be met with differing opinions and agendas. Those smaller, independent retailers are faced with their own challenges. They generally have the power to implement change quickly and use firsthand insights into what their customers want and need. Today, we speak with Jennifer Klein, owner of Secrets From Your Sister, about how independent retailers are winning at customer experience.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda from SLD, and this is “Think Retail.” Today we’re talking to Jennifer Klein, owner of Secrets From Your Sister. And we’re talking about why independent retailers are winning at customer experience.

Is bigger always better? Large retailers with multiple locations and a global reach seemingly have infinite capital and resources, but this can come at a cost. The decision makers in these companies are often far removed from their customers, and any initiative to lead change can be met with differing opinions and agendas. Those smaller, independent retailers are faced with their own challenges. They generally have the power to implement change quickly and use firsthand insights into what their customers want and need.

Jen, thanks for talking to us today. Why don’t you start us off by telling us a little bit about Secrets From Your Sister?

Jennifer: We’re a bra fitting store that works one-on-one with women to help them find bras that fit them and that are comfortable. We started the business 20 years ago, and I’ve been running it alone for the past 16. We had another location before, we’ve closed that, so we have our flagship shop. You know, we’re a destination business for women to come in and get lingerie.

Melinda: Can you tell us about some of the things that you think have led to you being a destination?

Jennifer: We came out into the bra fitting market 20 years ago. This was before Oprah hit the bra fitting industry and women were desperate to find comfortable bras to support them and give them comfort. There’s over 250 different bra sizes and the big shops like Victoria’s Secret were only really offering about 12 sizes. So, there was a huge amount of women running around, uncomfortable, flopping around and they just wanted and desired something more. So, finally the industry evolved and companies started manufacturing bras that fit many different sizes of women. And our store was fortunate enough to come out fairly close to the beginning of that.

I think we’ve stayed here so long because we’ve grown with the industry. We’ve worked with our customers. We’ve worked on developing and having great staff and training. And we’ve been consistent. We are always here and if you need something, you know that you can shop around and look at all the other different places, you can go and find things on sale, but no matter what, we’re always going to be here for you. So, you can always rely on us. And I think that has made a big difference.

Melinda: If you could describe your service model, because I’ve been a customer here, I know what it’s all about. But maybe you could describe it for our listeners, because it’s really important that they understand this part of it.

Jennifer: Yeah. So, when women come into the store, we offer a unique service in that we work one-on-one with you. There’s not a saleswoman running around and helping multiple people, answering the phone, cashing people out. You come in, you’re welcomed, and you get to work with an associate. When you’re in a very vulnerable state, you know, being half naked, talking about things that are personal, you have their undivided attention. And they will talk to you about what your needs are, what your wants are, what makes you comfortable, what doesn’t. And then they’ll start to bring you things. So, they kind of curate a bra wardrobe for you. And then within that fitting, they’re adjusting the bra, talking to you about it, helping you understand how to wear it, why this would be good, why this wouldn’t be good. They’re giving you all of the information that you need to make an informed decision about what you want to invest your money in. And bras in our store are a little bit more expensive than you would find elsewhere. So, you could be paying anywhere from $60 to $200 for a bra. And it’s important for women to have this information, so they know that they’re buying something that’s going to be good for them and it’s going to last a long time.

Melinda: If we’re going to think about the biggest lingerie brand that would come into most people’s head, we would think about Victoria’s Secret. Though it’s not necessarily directly in competition with you, but how would you compare your service model to their service model?

Jennifer: Victoria’s Secret wants to offer you an inexpensive bra that’s fashionable. They want to be able to help you quickly, and they want to be able to give you a lot of variety. Their product is poor quality, their service is not excellent. There’s a lot of people who are uninformed about bra fitting and bras and materials in general. Our service model is quite opposite in that we have a lot of information. We have a lot of education. We have quality product, and we have a huge variety of sizes. So, they’re there for the people that don’t have a lot of money and haven’t gotten to a point where they want something better where they have to go out and search for something.

Melinda: How has it been possible for you, a small independent retailer, to provide such a personalized and hands-on experience? I mean, you’ve got one-on-one. That’s a really, really…that ratio, it doesn’t get better than that. So, how are you able to provide that when a huge company like Victoria’s Secret is selling something at a much cheaper cost isn’t even able to offer? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jennifer: It’s a difference between small business and big business and we both work together. But in a small business, we also don’t make billions of dollars like Victoria’s Secret. So, we take our cuts, and in my particular business we invest into staffing. When you have the right women working for you and you also invest in training and how to train these ladies and continue to work on the training each year that pass, it makes all the difference. You are giving people information that they can share with other people so other people can become informed and educated. You’re empowering people. Whereas the Victoria’s Secret model is not about empowering people, it’s just about putting bras on your body. So, you have something.

Melinda: You touched a little bit on training. What role would you say education plays at Secrets From Your Sister, and how do you think bigger brands could do a better job?

Jennifer: I think you have to invest in your employees and educate them. If you don’t, then you’re not able to move your brand and your product forward. You have to be able to give people information. You have to be able to allow them to make decisions. And if you don’t, they’ll just lose interest.

Melinda: Right. So, when it comes to actual products in your boutique, how does being hands-on give you an advantage because you’re here in the store? How does that help you?

Jennifer: It helps us a lot. In this particular industry, it’s very challenging because every woman’s body is different and the bras have multiple sizes, sometimes over 50 or 60 sizes per bra, and they’re all going to fit differently. There’s nothing standard. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m a B34,” and then buy every B34 in the store. They’re all going to fit differently.

Melinda: And what about with the suppliers? You mentioned them. How much engagement do you have with them?

Jennifer: We have a lot of engagement with suppliers. I’m quite particular about the bras that we bring in and the fits and the quality. Also, I studied costuming in school. So it heightened my awareness to certain things. And when we see a product, a new product that isn’t fitting well is coming back multiple times due to discomfort, we see a little fold on the material in every single person that we’re trying it on, we get to engage with the manufacturer’s, let them know that we’re experiencing these challenges. And that sometimes it will lead to a recall of the product. So, we get to have some nice one-on-one.

We also get to let them know what our customers are desiring. So if we have multiple bras and the customers over and over again aren’t finding that one thing that they want, like a thinner strap, or more support, or a rounder shape, or less nipple showing, we’re able to communicate that with the companies so that they can start to think about what they want to produce in the future to meet those demands. For instance, like teenagers all of a sudden. Our customers are starting to have children, and now they’re bringing their kids in to get their first bra fitting, which is very cool. But then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, these girls are smaller than a 30 band. Like, we need to get a different range of bras to suit this whole new client that’s coming in.” So, we get to communicate that with the manufacturer so that they can be aware of that and start to produce a product that’s going to suit these young ladies.

Melinda: Big brands pay marketing research companies a lot of money to profile their customers. You’re here in the store, and you are watching your customers, you’re listening to your customers, you’re talking to your staff and hearing their feedback. Now, of course, big brands, they can’t have that kind of engagement. But is there anything that you think that big brands can learn from this experience?

Jennifer: I think big brands pretty much have their marketing nailed to a T. It’s the one-on-one with your customers that they’re really not getting. There’s also not a huge amount of people available. Like, you’d go to The Bay, and you think, “Oh, this is great. I can get everything done all at once.” But then when you go to get help, there’s nobody there and you have to search somebody out. It’s very challenging. You know, all of a sudden we’ll have customers that are coming in, and they’re pregnant. So, 14, 12 years ago, these women were coming in and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, we now have to work into a whole new industry of nursing bras to suit this clientele.” And when you’re working in a big box retailer, you’re not really going to notice those things immediately. It’s going to take a lot longer with all of your market research and studying. And, you know, at that time also there wasn’t social media. So, not as much as what we’ve got today.

Melinda: Right. It helps you to be fast on your feet.

Jennifer: Yeah. Make quick changes.

Melinda: Absolutely. When we talk to independent retailers about employees, the conversation is very different, and I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. Independent retailers are not only in everyday contact with their customers but with their frontline staff. This helps people like Jen understand what works in terms of service and what their staff need to be able to deliver. How could bigger brands take some cues from what Jen and other indie retailers are doing?

First, looking at how you hire and pay staff is a paradigm shift the retail industry needs to embrace. For many years, retailers have used models that rely on cheap, unskilled labor with high turnover rates. But how can you expect that model to deliver on service? When employees are proud to represent a brand, it speaks volumes. Staffing models need to be updated to reflect the consumer’s desire for a better experience, and that means employee engagement. On that note, my second thought is that employee engagement through training and education not only benefits the consumer, but it benefits the company. A confident employee who can speak articulately about your products and services is an employee that’s been nurtured. This goes back to pride in your offering, which you should want your employees to genuinely believe in. Brands need to give employees these tools. And one way to do this is to develop an employee engagement program which maps out not only onboarding but ongoing training, internal opportunities, a detailed customer journey map, and a feedback model that ensures dialogue between frontline staff and head office is open.

That leads me to my last takeaway, which is, I think this is really important because CMOs and brand managers from large companies just can’t be as hands-on as an indie brand owner can. And so, it’s all the more important to get feedback from your frontline staff and not just the managers of the stores. If your frontline staff are empowered as experts, they can tell you how a product is really performing and what your customers really have to say. We often find that when we run an employee engagement program, frontline staff end up giving us key insights that were overlooked because nobody thought to ask them, but they ended up making a huge impact. A formal program that asks frontline staff to give feedback could be as simple as an ongoing survey, but it should be embedded into the company culture, and it needs to be formalized to ensure it actually happens.

The customer journey is such an important aspect of design for retailers. You can create a gorgeous store and the best customer journey on paper, but if you don’t have the right people, it won’t make a difference. Indie brands like Secrets From Your Sister get this, and we can learn a lot from what they’re doing right.


Secrets from your Sister is a place to indulge in a one-on-one, professional bra shopping service. They are located in Toronto at 560 Bloor Street West and online at

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email