Changing people’s perceptions about buying bras is an ongoing pursuit for The Pantry Underwear founder Eloise Rigby, who opened her first store in Islington in 2016. “Women in the UK seem to place less value on underwear because it’s something that no one else sees,” she says. “In other countries it’s the opposite – the right bra can literally transform an outfit.”
The former marketing manager says there’s also an intergenerational belief that there’s only one place to buy underwear: “Marks and Spencer has cornered the market for decades,” she says. “The nation is so used to that experience women often believe anything else is out of their price range. One of the biggest challenges I face as an indie underwear retailer is trying to shift that deeply ingrained idea.”
Now with a portfolio of three physical stores and a thriving e-commerce business, The Pantry Underwear is breaking the mould when it comes to bra and knickers shopping. Its team (AKA the Pant Patrol) offers a friendly and accessible service inside a contemporary and welcoming retail space. Or, if they prefer, via FaceTime fittings and consultations (set up during the lockdowns) with trained staff from the comfort of their own home.
Its range covers everything from everyday staples to maternity bras and sleepwear to special occasion lingerie and swimwear. Core labels include leading names Sloggi, Spanx, Calvin Klein Panache and Triumph through to indie labels like Dora Larsen.
And despite its top-level customer experience, highly curated product line-up and well considered physical store interiors, bras at The Pantry Underwear range from a reasonable £32 – £65 each.
Spotting a gap in the market, Eloise opened her first store in September 2016 in Islington’s Camden Passage. Her original concept was to offer an alternative to “uninspiring lingerie departments” and “inaccessible boudoir-style boutiques.” Six years later that philosophy remains.
The Islington shop was an instant hit and after six months trading, Eloise was approached by Liberty London to open a concession: “It felt like too good an opportunity to turn down,” she says. “Liberty’s footfall is fantastic; the store attracts a high volume of shoppers and international tourists. It meant we were able to build a much bigger customer database and transformed the business in many ways.”
It wasn’t without its challenges, however. The indie owner points out that it’s quite unusual to open a multi-brand concession inside a department store under the umbrella of another brand. “We were effectively representing three tiers of brands: Liberty, The Pantry Underwear and then our suppliers,” she says. “For that reason, the customer’s exposure to our store as a brand was quite limited.”
In 2020, when the pandemic hit and the contract with Liberty was expiring, Eloise decided to pursue other avenues. “It was great pre-covid, but we were relying on Liberty to bring in the footfall, so when that couldn’t happen it was no longer viable for the business,” she explains.
In the interim Elosie had also opened a second standalone store in Saffron Walden. But this time she decided to step into a new sector with a new dual concept shop. Set across three floors, The Pantry Underwear and The Pantry Bridal merges the retailer’s intimate categories alongside a tight edit of British bridalwear.
“In terms of cross pollination, it just made perfect sense,” she says. “We already had a great bridal underwear offering, so we were able to use many of the same suppliers to bring dresses in too.”
Located in the store’s basement, The Pantry Bridalwear offers female-founded British brands that complement its aesthetic. More recently, it has also just launched its own-brand collection, which is made in-house by a dedicated dress maker. With The Pantry Underwear positioned on the top floor, customers can buy their entire wedding outfit under one roof (and return for honeymoon lingerie and everyday staples).
In August 2021, The Pantry Underwear moved its original flagship store from the quirky Camden Passage to nearby retail development, Islington Square. Flanked by mainstream retailers, restaurants, salons, an upmarket Odeon and some fellow indies, the new unit boasts more space and a more conventional shop floor layout. “Our Camden Passage store wasn’t big enough and was quite a higgledy-piggledy space,” says Eloise. “The new shop has more square footage with huge floor-to-ceiling windows. We’ve added in warm soft lighting and natural textiles to create an interesting space that’s practical yet still has the personality of an independent.”
The move to a modern development was also part of Eloise’s strategy to become more accessible to mainstream shoppers. “I’m proud to be an independent, but there’s still this conception that boutiques are expensive,” she explains. “We’re trying to get away from that, so positioning the store among high street brands like Anthropologie is all part of changing that preconceived idea.”
The retailer’s latest launch is a third standalone bricks-and-mortar store in Cambridge, which opened at the end of September. The shop is also dual concept with underwear and bridalwear set across separate floors. Inside there’s a greater depth of product lines and larger changing rooms as well as some artwork and products from local creators.
The owner says she’d been considering the city – her hometown – as a location for a couple of years and wanted to test the market with a trial unit. “We were able to negotiate a temporary contract with the landlord so we can establish whether it’s the right location for us,” she says. “It’s on the market square, so a great position with lots of footfall. It takes a while to build up a community, so it’s too early to say whether we’ll be staying long-term. However, it’s been popular so far and is among the likes of Whistles, Space NK and Sweaty Betty, which seems to be working well for us.”
Currently, Eloise has retained the Saffron Walden location as a studio space, but its customers are being redirected to Cambridge with tempting loyalty programme incentives. “We’ll keep both locations while we do the trial,” says Eloise. “After that we’ll be able to reassess the best way to move forward with the business.”
The Pantry Underwear stocks the same product range across its stores and e-commerce site, which Eloise says is an important part of its customer experience: “I don’t think it’s a good thing for shoppers to see something online, walk into that retailer’s physical store, and find it’s not stocked there,” she says. “I know some larger retailers are trying out marketplace models. And while I understand that from a commercial standpoint, it’s not the way we want to go.”
Eloise explains that its product portfolio is purposely comprehensive so not to alienate any portion of the market: “We do have a customer profile with loyal shoppers who fall into that category, but we are always aiming to broaden that. Stocking a large range comes with its challenges, but I couldn’t risk losing a new customer because there were holes in our sizes or styles. I’m always striving for that perfect customer experience.”
Another key part of its strategy is to never ever discount – a decision consciously made from the very beginning to protect the brand. “It can be difficult at times, especially when our suppliers start their promotions online,” Eloise says. “But it’s something we stick to.” Instead, the retailer offers its regular customers – fondly referred to as its ‘Pant Pals’ – a loyalty scheme. To be included, they sign up to receive its ‘Pant Post’ emails and agree for the retailer to keep a record of their size. Every transaction accrues credit in their account and once that reaches £20, they can spend it online or in-store.
While The Pantry is still on a growth trajectory for the year, Eloise says she’s slowly beginning to see the impact of the cost of living crisis. The indie owner works on the shop floor three days a week and says she’s seeing more shoppers delay making a purchase after a bra fitting: “After the whole rigmarole of being fitted, customers would always walk away with at least one new bra. Now we are getting more and more people asking us to save their size so they can come back on pay day.”
To tackle the issue, Eloise says the team is reacting with personalised marketing. So far, the retailer has reached out to anyone who had a virtual fitting during the lockdown, reminding them it may be time to be fit-checked. They have also contacted loyalty shoppers with enough (or almost enough) credit to receive money off their purchase. This has proved successful and has helped drive an increase in sales.
Eloise says Saturdays at the bricks-and-mortar stores are still really busy. However, as many retailers would probably attest to, attracting mid-week shoppers is more of a challenge. “This time of the year is interesting as people are preparing for Christmas but haven’t necessarily started buying presents yet,” she says. “Our focus at the moment is on driving footfall ourselves through repeat visits, partnerships with local organisations and our Pant Pal community.”
Room for improvement
To further cement its position as an affordable and accessible retailer, The Pantry is also trialling new visual merchandising inside its stores. Eloise doesn’t favour using mannequins: “Boobs are soft and behave in a unique way that mannequins can’t replicate,” she says. Instead, shoppers can see Polaroids of real women wearing its bras (usually staff and regular customers) among the shop’s rails. This also includes written information, such as available cup sizes, fabrics and prices, so the options are immediately clear.
The retailer’s window displays are also different to a traditional shop front: “We use suspended rings and rails to showcase our products,” says Eloise. “I think a window with pretty yellow lingerie shown on mannequins could be alienating for some shoppers. They might take one look and immediately discount us.”
The stores’ window merchandising also often coordinates with its marketing campaigns. For example, The Pantry installed a display of love notes written by its customers for ‘Pal-entine’s Day’ and donated £1 for every inclusion to the British Heart Foundation. It also uses letter boards outside its stores, proclaiming its “free fittings” and “A-K cup range” as well as “a bit of banter to make people smile.” Eloise says: “We don’t really invest in seasonal decorations – I think this is a much better way to get our personality across to potential customers.”
Moving into the final weeks of the year, the team behind The Pantry will be focusing on establishing its offer in Cambridge. Eloise says she is also investigating a higher tech version of its hugely popular virtual bra fittings using full-body 3D scanning and augmented reality.
When it comes to more bricks-and-mortar stores, does the owner have any more locations in the pipeline? “I’m always on the lookout for new potential premises,” she says. “Who knows where we could be by this time next year.”