Hope's Chest owner finds new life in bra fittings - The San Diego Union-Tribune
Posted on March 17 2012
By By PAT MAIO firstname.lastname@example.org | 5 p.m. March 17, 2012
When Hope Suhr was laid off last year from Torrance-based California Manufacturing Technology Consulting , a nonprofit that helps manufacturers streamline factory processes to stay competitive, she fell back on her home-based business: selling custom-fitted bras.
She got started a few years ago selling bras in the evening at Tupperware-style parties. Suhr also wants to bring awareness to an important issue in her own life, since her Carlsbad mother is a breast cancer survivor.
But she wouldn't have gone in this direction had she not been laid off. Suhr was a lead sales agent for the federally funded consulting firm for nearly five years, helping to save what was left of a dwindling manufacturing base in the Inland Empire.
"This area got hit hard. Businesses were flat-lining. They were shutting their doors," said Suhr, who worked with hundreds of manufacturers ranging from instrument maker Suhr Guitars (no relation) in Lake Elsinore to Big Bear Choppers in San Bernardino.
The Canyon Lake resident's day was once filled with "lean" manufacturing principles and teaching others how to eliminate waste on the factory floor. She'd help bring in consultants to teach strategies to improve manufacturing quality by identifying and removing defects in business processes.
On Aug. 15, Suhr's husband, Dan, might have become the happiest person on Earth when Hope Suhr moved the pop-up storage closets filled with bras out of his garage and opened Hope's Chest in the gated city of Canyon Lake. She made rent the first month but declined to say how profitable she has been since then.
Chad Garber, a UPS deliveryman, makes daily deliveries with stacks of bra-filled boxes. "It's my favorite stop," Garber said.
Dan Suhr chuckled over the fact that he has regained his workbench, woodworking tools and other gear. He even helped build some of the showroom at Hope's Chest.
The front part of the store has marble-topped dressers filled with bras of all colors, prints and sizes. A few mannequins show off some of the styles. There are personal consulting rooms and fitting rooms where Hope Suhr does all of the fitting herself. More than 2,000 bras are hanging on racks in the rear of the store.
Suhr's bras sell from $35 to $150 ---- a higher price than big-name retailers because she carries an inventory of European-made ones. These bras are hand-stitched, not glued like many that are sold in the United States, Suhr said.
"The standard retail chains don't cater to breast augmentation or the well-endowed very well," Suhr said.
Bra-fitting experts say that the American-made bras have fewer pieces than European crafted ones, which are stitched together from twice as many components. A key difference between the two styles is what's called the bridge, the piece between the cups. American bras largely have standardized bridges that are the same for nearly all bra sizes. European bras tend to feature bridges of different sizes.
Poorly fitted bras can cause tension headaches and neck pain, Suhr said.
"There aren't many fitting boutiques outside of a hospital setting," Suhr said. "Hospitals tend to be very clinical, and not feminine."
Suhr has forged ties with Loma Linda University Medical Center, north of Riverside in the Inland Empire, and its offshoot hospital in Murrieta ; Fallbrook Hospital ; and Michelle's Place , a breast cancer resource center, to help women feel dignified in getting a prosthesis fitting after a mastectomy. She has another partnership in the works with the Rancho Springs Medical Center in Murrieta.
She also does fittings for women who have had breast implants or reductions, as well as large-size women and those who are breast-feeding. Suhr has given speeches about bra fittings at women's health conferences in Riverside that have attracted several hundreds of attendees.
Tracy Bock, the service line director at Loma Linda for plastic surgery and bariatric surgery for obese people, said the hospital has relied on Suhr for help in educational outreach at its women's conferences in recent years.
Initially, Bock said, "We reached out to Macy's and Nordstrom, but they said they don't do those kinds of things where they go out into the community. She (Suhr) found a nice niche. She really researched the business and jumped into it."
Hope's Chest isn't the only boutique of its kind ---- though such businesses tend to be found largely in urban areas, such as Los Angeles, Orange County and a handful in San Diego County. Still, Suhr said her store fills a void in the Temecula-to-Corona corridor along Interstate 15.
In San Diego County, some well-known bra-fitting stores include national chain Intimacy , at San Diego's Fashion Valley; Jolie Femme Deux , in the Flower Hill Promenade in Del Mar; and the Enchantress in the Grossmont shopping mall.
Susan Nethero, co-founder of Atlanta-based Intimacy, said bra fitting got a boost when Oprah Winfrey invited Nethero on her talk show back in 2005 to discuss the subject and featured her in O magazine. The bra industry received a huge sales jolt as a result of Nethero's appearance ---- referred to as the "Oprah effect."
"It was an understatement to say its effect was dramatic," Nethero said by telephone from her vacation spot in Colorado last week. "The industry exploded. Prior to 2005, everyone talked about the bra of the season. No one talked about bra fitting. It is true that we were pioneering."
The bra-fitting industry is relatively small, with only 200 to 250 retailers doing it properly, according to Nethero's estimates. Her privately held chain is considered the industry leader, with about 18 stores in major urban areas across the U.S., generating about $2,000 in sales per square foot on average.
"It's been a little of a push to get people to talk bra fittings," said Nethero, whose chain has sold more than 1 million bras since her appearance on the "Oprah" show seven years ago.
For now, Suhr is focused on getting her business up and running, but she has bigger plans to grow.
For instance, she's considering offering Skype services to speak with some customers over the Internet who can't easily travel to her office, or who find rising gas prices keeping them away. Appointments for fittings also can be made through her, www.HopesChest.com.
"You've got to change with the times," Suhr said.
We move to a new location in 2015 as we were growing and busted out o our Flag ship location.