10 questions for ... bra seller Karen Edbrooke

One woman's serious car accident 20 years ago led to a business catering for thousands of busty women.

Twenty years ago bank loan officer Karen Edbrooke couldn't find a bra that fit. So she started importing lingerie. As you do.

Frustrated with the lack of sizes available in Australia, she placed a small bra order with a US supplier and started a mail order business. Her initial stock sold out in two days.

Today, Big Girls Don't Cry Anymore has a warehouse, an online store and a retail shop based in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, and distributes lingerie to more than 300 stores across Australia and New Zealand. Edbrooke, 46, employs 13 people and has 40,000 customers on her database, selling 3000 units per week.

1. Prior to launching an online store, how did people find out about your business? Do many people still order via catalogue?

A lot of customers still order via catalogue, usually because they are re-ordering a bra they have purchased before. We have been selling online for about 15 years. I originally set up the website myself; just a small operation to get it started. People used to find out about us by word-of-mouth, and still do.

We also had a lot of media coverage when I first started the business – I would write up a press release and send it to all the local media houses. I also put an advertisement in the local papers.

2. What was happening in your life when you had the idea to start the business?

I was employed at the National Australia Bank and had a car accident. I gained 30 kilograms within 12 months. I decided to visit my parents in Spain to recuperate. On the way home, I stopped in the US and realised that I could go into any lingerie store and find my new size, which was a 12FF (I was originally was a 12C).

3. What was the most difficult aspect of starting up Big Girls Don't Cry Anymore?

There were no computers or email or the internet for research (20 years ago). I had to go to the local library and borrow the international yellow pages to find suppliers to import the products. I sent a lot of faxes and letters.

4. How many months/years did it take to make a profit?

It took a few years, as I was going from working from home to a workplace with a lot of upfront costs.

5. Why would a customer buy a bra online instead of going to their local department or specialty store?

They may buy a bra online due to embarrassment, remoteness or ease. We always suggest that customers are fitted first and then if they just need a new colour in the same bra they can get that online.

6. What's the most memorable feedback you've received from a customer?

I have had hugs and people crying with relief that they have finally found a bra that fits! The best one probably was a lady that changed her mind about getting a breast reduction. She was a very well-endowed lady who had come to us to look at bras for after the surgery. But after talking to her and helping to realise that there were comfortable, affordable and pretty bras available, she changed her mind.

A lot the time it's just great when people realise that by just wearing the correct size bra they can look thinner, get pain relief and feel more confident.

7. Are retail stores driving women away with a lack of sensitivity/customer service?

Not to my knowledge, but I do believe in showing all the sizes available. Recently on a trip to the UK I visited a major lingerie chain where they keep all GG and above sizes out the back. No size should be too big to hide.

8. Do you think some women/girls/men prefer not to get fitted in person, and why?

Generally we try to persuade customers to get fitted in person. We have to be very delicate and try to make the customers feel very comfortable. We have extremely large fitting rooms (two metres by two metres) and doors that close – no curtains. We don't use a measuring tape as this can be very inaccurate and can offend some.

The best trick that we use to make customers feel at ease, especially young girls, is to put them in a bra that is far too big for them. This helps them to realise that there are bigger people than them and that we will have a bra to fit them.

9. How often do customers return products for sizing issues; is the administration associated with online returns time-consuming and/or tricky?

We have a good returns policy as well as great fitters that can fit over the phone or online. We suggest to all of our new customers that they contact us first with some details about themselves so we can suggest a size and style. If the bra is the wrong size, we get them to tell us how it is wrong – too big, too small ... this can then help us determine a better fit. The customer can return it for an exchange until we get the right fit.

10. What is the biggest business challenge you've faced in the past two decades?

Keeping up with fashion, technology, the growing sizes and most importantly changing people's attitudes – style is not a size, it's an attitude.

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