I interviewed sales associates Laura Green at Adam & Eve on Chapel Hill Boulevard in Durham and Darshal Smith and Carrie Mohagheglin at Nordstrom at Southpoint mall. My interview at Victoria's Secret at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh went swimmingly until the manager terminated it, and I didn't get the associate's name. Perhaps the subject of men and lingerie remains a very sensitive one for retailers.
All the sales associates were young, charming and possessed a reassuring bedside manner. They say that men who shop for lingerie are all types and ages. They agree that men buy lingerie mostly at Valentine's Day or Christmas.
The associate at Victoria's Secret says many of her male customers are "awkward and uncomfortable." Green at Adam & Eve describes them as "very, very nervous and afraid." The associates at Nordstrom say men there are "lost and confused." I know how intimidating shopping for lingerie can feel. The experience can induce a strange kind of paranoia. Does the sales associate think I'm a cross-dresser or some sort of fetishist? Does that female customer see me as a sad bastard or an old pervert?
The sales associates use different strategies to try to calm their male customers' nerves. The first thing the associate at Victoria's Secret does is give him an in-store shopping bag. "No man wants to be seen carrying a pair of panties around in his hands," she says, unafraid to state the obvious.
There was consensus among the associates on the importance of knowing your product to make the male more relaxed. Green stressed the importance of "explaining the product." I can testify that the profound mysteries of lingerie can indeed be daunting to the novice male lingerie shopper. Smith tries a different tack by being "comical" in order to lighten up the customer. She cracks what she calls "typical jokes." I didn't ask. I could only imagine!
But all support the idea of men buying lingerie for their lovers. Green is the doyenne of lingerie philosophers and says it helps with women's self-esteem--they carry themselves differently when wearing something nice underneath. And "men need sexy," she says, to help couples "keep the fire going."
The difference between male and female lingerie shoppers, Green says, is that males are driven by the visual while females are more interested in comfort. Men don't think about the material and how comfortable it will feel. For example, Green points out some of the corsets men find sexy but contain bone stiffeners that are tight and can be uncomfortable. She says her role is to help male customers find "the borderline between sex and comfort." It's a matter of "fabric versus cut and design." Green says half the men shop for themselves and half for their women, the former often opting for lace and garter contraptions.
Our helper at Victoria's Secret acknowledged that men have different tastes in lingerie than the women in their lives, and she has served many women who have brought back gifts they described as hideous. Thongs are a popular return item. The assistant reported that many older women find them uncomfortable. I believe there are only two things that divide the younger and older generations: thongs and hip hop.
The most insistent advice to the male shopper is to know a woman's size. To help, the stores provide male customers with a wallet card to record their sizes and other relevant details. (Mohagheglin said a lot of returns to Nordstrom are based on size not style, and most problems with sizing are with the panties. Be forewarned!)
Our associate at Victoria's Secret described her male customers' frequent response to the question of their girlfriend/wife's size: She mimed a helpless male using his hands to describe the contours of his beloved's body. She is often asked by men, "What would suit my wife?" Daft question, but our unflappable sales associates take this sort of thing in stride. Some male customers describe women as about the same size as the associate. Salespeople see the error in these men's judgment when women have to return items to the store.
So, men, be strong and head for the stores. The most important things to know ahead of time are: (1) your woman's vital statistics; (2) which side of the thong divide your woman is on; (3) consideration of your female companion's comfort; and (4) calculated by cost per square centimeter, lingerie is more expensive than real estate!
And if you really can't handle the pressure of bricks and mortar shopping for lingerie, there's always the Internet.