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First Person: Commentary by Laura Fitzpatrick, lingerie entrepreneur

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Friday, December 01, 2006

LauraFitzpatrick.jpg Marketing unmentionables

An entrepreneur sets out to warm up winter nights — the old-fashioned way.

By Laura Fitzpatrick

More than 2½ years ago I was burrowed behind stacks of books as the finance director of the Multnomah County Library Foundation, when I first considered opening an intimate-apparel shop in Portland. At the time, I was drawn to the idea for purely selfish reasons. I wanted lingerie. I don’t mean predictable, droopy, department-store nighties. I mean drop-dead sexy lingerie like colorful push-up bra-and-panty sets, glamorous curvy corsets, and luxurious stockings. I couldn’t find what I wanted in Portland, so I dreamed of opening my own shop.

Between fundraising events and balancing the books, I started my undercover work on underwear. I asked women in Portland about what they were and weren’t wearing to bed. Their candid cotton-panty answers revealed that opening a lingerie shop was not a selfish endeavor after all. I saw it as a public service.

I had no real knowledge of lingerie or even retail sales, for that matter, but I did have 20 years of experience in campaigning and public service. I decided to apply everything I knew about generating grassroots support and rallying around political campaigns to market unmentionables. Dove has its campaign for real beauty; I launched a campaign for real passion.

During my career in public service, I had marketed everything from political candidates to parks, to scouting, to community visioning. I didn’t plan to just sell drop-dead sexy lingerie; I would sell silky, sensual sex. Come on, we’re all adults here, you know the kind I’m talking about: sweet anniversary sex after picturesque sunsets on cruise ships; breathless encounters in four-star hotel rooms. That kind of sex, and all of the feelings that come with it.

I knew the name of the business had to set the right tone. The words “Oh Baby” were a perfect representation of that feeling, don’t you think? As for advertising, in my past life, I had used an image of a fresh-cut grassy park full of frolicking children in a teeming city to sell a $10 million parks levy. The tagline for the campaign was something like “Healthy parks grow happy children.” For my new business, I chose the image of a black-lace bra. I developed a simple ad campaign with phrases like “Should come with a warning label” or “Looks good on the floor.”

By this time, I was busy buying and merchandising my little shop on Northeast Broadway in Portland with everything one might need to spice up a love life. I was well on my way to making my steamy dream a reality.

To get the word out about Oh Baby, I identified my likely prospects and, given my past experience, chose to communicate with them just as I would have during election season — I sent a campaign mailer. I bought a mailing list of high dual-income households and sent 10,000 postcards with Oh Baby’s sultry message and imagery. Two days later, I received quite a heated response and not in the form of sales. Angry women whose husbands had received our postcard called, demanding to know how we got his name on our mailing list. They asked: “Has he been shopping there?  He’s never given me any lingerie!” I quickly realized that the postcards had been addressed to Head of Household, which more often than not equated to the male. It was quite a scandal! Luckily, fundraising and campaigning prepares you to react quickly. I called a local newspaper gossip columnist, who told the story of the “outraged cotton-clad housewives.” It was picked up by local and national radio and comedy websites. I received more press for my opening than I ever dreamed of.

I made the jump from books to bustiers more than two years ago. I continually use lessons from the library and my years in public service even today. Business at Oh Baby has been booming. Since I opened my first shop in June 2004, my same-store sales have increased every month. And this year Oh Baby was recognized with an award by an international lingerie trade organization.

Growing sales and industry awards are nice, but I get the most satisfaction knowing my campaign for real passion has been successful in steaming up the chilly, damp Oregon nights. 

Laura Fitzpatrick is a campaigner, entrepreneur and purveyor of intimate apparel in Portland.

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