Outside the 9-to-5 with Kelly O'Brien: "I Opened a Lingerie Store"
In the course of writing a recent post on the hobbies that people keep outside the office, I discovered that a favorite former client, Kelly O’Brien had bought a lingerie store. Kelly is also VP, Client Services at Havas, running digital marketing for a major pharmaceutical company.
“Congratulations!” I gushed, “You’re living the dream!” I assumed that owning a lingerie store was one of Kelly’s greatest wishes, but actually what unfolded was a much richer tale – one that included her mom growing up in an orphanage where you weren’t allowed even to say the word “bra,” to the passing of the family home in West Belmar from one generation to the next, and finally to Kelly becoming the proprietor of Linger in Spring Lake, NJ.
JS: How? When? Why?
KO: I didn’t set out with the goal of owning a lingerie store. For quite some time, I had been entertaining different encore career options. I couldn’t land on an a-ha! idea per se but I had a wish list and a vision of how I wanted to spend my life: I wanted to keep myself in digital in some way, and have a meaningful impact on people and their quality of life. For example, I briefly considered becoming a healthcare professional but I couldn’t fathom the idea of being a student again. I also wanted to get to that hallowed work/life balance we all imagine. I’m drawn to small towns and wanted to be active in a local community.
I knew Linger because I was a regular client. The previous owner lived a few doors down from my dad’s place in West Belmar, so we had become friendly. When she decided to sell the store after 8 years to relocate for a relationship, I knew it wasn’t due to business difficulties.
Linger had established a reputation for selling beautifully-crafted, high-quality goods and had grown – mainly by word-of-mouth – into a destination shop for clients as far north as Hoboken. I was an aficionado of the product, which fueled my passion, but the prospect of taking over the store checked many of the boxes I described: There was the opportunity to extend sales from retail to online, to leverage my digital marketing experience, and to support the local community as a business owner. Everything seemed very serendipitous.
Of course, I reviewed the financials and did some investigation into the size of the industry ($14 billion!), competition, average profit margin, etc. But in the end I asked myself “What’s the worst that could happen?” and went for it.
JS: Then what happened?
KO: Hurricane Sandy happened! We had an incredible re-opening party on October 20th, attracting customers from past, present and future. We did an extraordinary amount of business. Then 7 days later I was boarding up the shop! I had considered virtually every contingency plan except what to do in a hurricane with an extended power outage. As of December 20th, we’ll have been open 2 months, but the shop was closed for 40% of that time! Although we were fortunate to not have any damages to our infrastructure or inventory, we lost 3 weeks and even when we did re-open, most of our customer base was focused on life necessities, not lingerie. Things are starting to come back though.
JS: What do you love about this business?
KO: There have been some very poignant and rewarding moments when we saw a woman’s confidence and outlook transform as a result of something she found in the store.
I had no idea that I could connect with people thru lingerie shopping – though my first hint came as I was building up our Facebook presence. The most viral posts were the ones where I recounted my own memories about lingerie – like when I eight and asked my mom what a peignoir was.
As our customers started talking about lingerie and sharing their experiences, we discovered that their feelings about lingerie are often very tentative and uncertain. For example, they’ve been wearing the same style forever because they think it looks good or is comfortable, or they’re worried they can’t pull off a different look.
They’re not really sure what they come in looking for, but it’s fantastic when they discover that piece that changes them – whether it’s looking 10 years younger, or feeling sexy or finally being happy with their shape.
(Kelly’s story makes me recall a recent shopping excursion with a friend. She’d gone thru a rough divorce and had been wearing a lot of – how should I say it – blah clothes. As she picked up her 15th baggy gray sweater, I pitched an intervention: “Oh come ‘on! How about hot pink?” Of course, she looked amazing and got many complements. So she started to add color back into her life, which led her to smile more and start dating again. The very next time I saw her she was practically glowing in a stunning red dress. It looked like she could breathe again.)
KO: Women have always been connected to beauty and comfort and when we get away from that, we become sad.
Who knew we could have such a profound impact by selling lingerie?! My father – both my parents – always embraced strong female role models and refused to believe in any limitations for women. They encouraged my sister and me to do whatever we wanted. I think they’d get such a kick out of what we’re doing, because it’s supporting women by making them feel good, confident and desirable.
JS: What’s next?
KO: I’d love to take Linger from a regional store to a national brand. We’re working on an eCommerce engine and building an online community. We doubled out Facebook followers in 6 weeks! It’s been interesting toggling between digital advertising exec and small business owner. Sometimes the best solution – like a $750K eCommerce platform – isn’t appropriate for the current scale, so you have to make smart decisions that will accommodate growth.
In the spirit of the store’s name, we’re also hosting events that encourage people to linger, from fit parties to Girls’ Night Out. Not just for women, either. We’re planning a Men’s Night Out just before Valentine’s Day.
JS: Are you happy you decided to buy Linger?
KO: It’s been so meaningful and fun in ways I never imagined. I keep thinking: Wouldn’t it have been sad if I didn’t do this?
Linger is located at 304 Morris Avenue in Spring Lake, NJ.
Hours are 10 AM – 5 PM daily, and 11 AM – 4 PM on Sundays.