How Victoria's Secret, Nordstrom Came To Opposite Decisions

Sometimes, doing the right thing can mean saying no to what shoppers might think is the right thing. Victoria's Secret (NYSE:LTD) recently found itself in the middle of a challenging issue when the daughter of a breast cancer survivor started campaigning vigorously—including helping to get 120,000 signatures on a petition—to get the apparel retailer to start offering mastectomy bras.

The truth is that Victoria's Secret has been a longtime champion of cancer issues, having donated more than $1.6 million to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society to fund breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment. It's also donated some $10 million (over two years) to fund cancer research at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said ABCNews.

But the company was in the awkward position of knowing that it couldn't do mastectomy bras in the proper way. As Victoria's Secret put it in an E-mailed statement: "Through our research, we have learned that fitting and selling mastectomy bras—in the right way, in a way that is beneficial to women—is complicated and truly a science. As a result, we believe that the best way for us to make an impact for our customers is to continue funding cancer research."

One Victoria's Secret source elaborated on the process. First off, the store can't simply sell such specialized bras. They need to be fitted and customized. The fitting alone? "A good one takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half, if the shopper is to have it fit properly," the official said.

Then there's the training of associates, a training that is lightyears more complex than any piece of apparel that the chain sells today. "We found that the certification process alone required more than 500 hours of fitting and training. These are considered medical devices," the Victoria's source said. Given that it's a medical device, there is also lots of highly specialized paperwork, "such as billing Medicare and insurance companies. Honest to goodness, to do it right for women, we couldn't do it in a way that would be right for them," the source said.

Instead, Victoria's Secret has opted to support the James Cancer Clinic at Ohio State. They have a program with boutiques right inside the medical center, shops with trained personnel to handle the fittings professionally.

Interestingly enough, the case for doing—or not doing—mastectomy bras is best illustrated by comparing Victoria's Secret—which has opted to not do it—with the largest U.S. chain today that is doing it: Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN).Nordstrom has had its mastectomy bra program running for an impressive 35 years and has fulltime associates who are fully trained and certified. "Our prosthesis bra offering and fitting service is a successful part of our lingerie business and we're pleased to offer it to our customers. For us, it seems like a natural connection to offer this service to our customers, many of whom are impacted by breast cancer," said Nordstrom spokesperson Tara Darrow. "We want to do what we can to provide them with the same level of personal service, product selection and knowledge during their prosthesis and bra fitting that they expect in a regular fitting. We offer certified prosthesis fitting in every Nordstrom full-line store and we believe we offer the single largest network of certified mastectomy fitters in the country."

The ROI of any program like this is complicated. From a pure direct cost versus direct benefit perspective, Nordstrom's long history of this program means that the special costs were absorbed long ago. The associates at Victoria's Secret tend to be much younger and having a higher turnover than their Nordstrom counterparts. Much more important are the demographics of each chain's shoppers. The much younger profile of VS shoppers means fewer customers likely to be directly suffering breast cancer, compared with the older profile at Nordstrom.

That age difference with the shoppers also impacts productivity issues. Would there be enough mastectomy bra shoppers to keep one specialist at each store busy? When there is no need, would that highly-trained technician likely be willing and able to sell random VS merchandise when there's no mastectomy bra customers needing help?

The larger average ticket size at Nordstrom also allows such investments to be recouped much more quickly. Most critically, the benefit of such a program is not the revenue from the mastectomy bra sale per se, but the loyalty of that customer and untold future repeat purchases. Indeed, the bra prices at both chains is not that different, said Nordstrom's Darrow: "We are actually competitive with Victoria's Secret on price. Our bras range from $38 to $86."

Not all such fittings actually deliver a true prosthesis bra. Often Nordstrom can sell the shopper an off-the-shelf bra and then add special pockets to the garment, something that Nordstrom offers at no additional charge. "For us, it's really about providing a service for our customers. We offer bra fittings as well, so this is really a nature extension of that service. Our customers tell us they love that we can do this for them," Darrow said. "We think it makes sense to provide service to our customers in many ways and at during different points in their lives. Through offering prosthesis bras and fittings, we do hope that we can meet our customers' needs now and hopefully bring them back to our store in the future so we can serve them again. Or for current customers, we can continue to meet their needs. We believe this personalized service–particularly at what can be a difficult time for many women—sets us apart."

The fact that Nordstrom has always made customer service a top priority—making it one of the most CS-friendly chains in retail—also makes this service a good match.

Clearly, both of these chains have made these decisions based on business criteria (profit). Even the charitable investments can be cynically seen as a marketing effort. But both chains have also seemingly come to opposite decisions based on what they argue is in the best interest of their customers. The reality is that one chain's demographics and positioning allows it offer this service well and the other chain associates and shoppers make it unable to deliver such a service well.

Petitions or not, it's clear that these kinds of retail decisions are lot more complex than they might first appear.