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Wriggling into Retail

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While store closings continue for various reasons, certain high-profile retailers have made the decision to jettison stores while saving the brand. Think Smith & Hawken gardening goods at Target or Sharper Image gadgets at Bed Bath & Beyond.

In a twist, after selling its products in thousands of retail outlets and online for more than a decade, shapewear giant Spanx opened its first standalone stores last November, and locations in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey arrived just in time to help tame holiday bulges.

Spanx is the brainchild of Sara Blakely, who created the first Spanx product by cutting the feet off control-top pantyhose to avoid unsightly lines beneath a pair of unlined Arden B. cream-colored pants. Spanx took off in 2000 when Oprah Winfrey recommended Blakely’s footless pantyhose as one of her “Favorite Things.” Blakely’s first retail account was Neiman Marcus, followed by Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

Today, Spanx offers more than 200 products ranging from slimming apparel and stockings to swimsuits, bras and activewear, as well as a variety of compression undershirts and briefs for men. Products are carried by more than 12,000 stores in 50 countries; stateside, Spanx has developed its Assets Red Hot label for stores like Belk, JCPenney and Target. It all adds up to a billion-dollar annual business.

Blakely’s body-shaping innovations have earned Spanx a place in pop culture, with mentions anywhere from CNN to “Saturday Night Live.” It’s quite a coup for the former stand-up comic who once made her living selling fax machines door to door, then made her first million the year after Spanx hit the market.

“It’s one of those things that I just can’t believe it’s actually happening,” Blakely told USA Today at the opening of the Tyson’s Corner (Va.) store. “I remember the days of working so hard to get a pocket — not even a row but a pocket — in a hosiery department.”

Blakely eventually got more than a pocket; the first in-store Spanx shop opened in August 2011. “This is a big moment!” Blakely wrote on “Rear View,” the company blog, when the store opened. “This shop is our vision for a Spanx boutique. We want to provide Spanx fans with an easy way to shop all of our products. We want women to feel comfortable and have fun ... like they’ve stepped into a friend’s fabulous closet.”

Tower of power
Fabulous indeed. From the marquee-style façade to the abundance of Spanx’s signature red hue, the 1,200-sq.-ft. Tyson’s Corner store is upbeat and energetic with a tongue-in-chic-ness that embodies Spanx spirit and personality. “We want to provide fans with an intuitive, interactive way to shop all of our products, exceptional service and a fun, empowering experience,” Blakely says. “The Spanx store will be a place where everybody knows your name ... and your bra size!”

“Cheer squads” and “transformation teams” greet customers. The stores channel the whimsical nature of Blakely’s take on her product as well as the graphics from the original packaging, designed by Blakely on a friend’s computer in the summer of 2000.

Design and architectural firm Bergmeyer Associates helped Spanx make the move from in-store shops to mall-based retail, translating existing Spanx-designed fixtures and packaging and creating the theatrical façade and various store amenities. “We worked collaboratively on the design in order to maintain the brand equity Spanx had already developed,” says Bergmeyer principal Lewis Muhlfelder, “while making sure the design could flex from a store measuring 850 ... to 1,200 square feet, and beyond.”

Dominating the intimate space is the iconic “Tower of Power” fixture — a round, lighted display devoted to helping customers select the proper hosiery for their particular body type and shaping needs. High-gloss finishes combine with warm, feminine furnishings including chandeliers and lush couches. The dressing areas feature flattering lighting, robes and pink feather boas.

Then there’s the star wall of fame, featuring dozens of celebs touting the goods, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson (showing off a Spanx t-shirt and briefs that he wore to the Emmys), Jennifer Garner and Katy Perry. That doesn’t include the ubiquitous reality star endorsements — in interviews, Kim Kardashian has said the one thing she can’t live without is Spanx.

Inevitable growth
From tabloid stars to working moms, Spanx resonates. “From a new mom who had never tried Spanx and cried because of how great she looked and felt in our active pants, to long-time fans who are thrilled to finally have their favorite products in one place,” says Spanx CEO Laurie Ann Goldman, “the common response is that they leave our store feeling more confident about themselves and their potential, and that’s our goal.”

Spanx’s new stores will carry the entire range of product — providing a distinct advantage over those limited-space channels. Company-owned stores also give the company a place to test new products and train sales associates.

“From the moment you walk in, our expert ‘transformation team’ is working to customize your experience to meet your specific needs,” Goldman says. “Whether you’re looking for a comfortable back-smoothing bra or an extra confidence boost for your high school reunion -— we’ve got you covered.”

Spanx could be another entrepreneurial brand traveling the route Ralph Lauren blazed when he opened in-store shops followed by freestanding boutiques in the 1970s and ’80s. Industry watchers are also keeping an eye on New York-based Bonobos, the high-profile upstart men’s clothing company, which recently departed from its online-only sales strategy to begin selling at Nordstrom stores in addition to its handful of “Guideshops” scattered across the country.

Even with up some dozen stores up and running this year, Spanx isn’t stopping. “We’re getting requests from fans around the world for Spanx stores in their city,” Goldman says. “When we find a place that feels right we will open more, but now we are focusing on doing everything we can with the ones we already have.”