Why Selling Dancewear Basics Is Anything but Basic

Your fashion inventory may grab all the attention, but creating a strategy for selling your basics is just as important. Here’s how to keep them uniquely on-brand and contributing to a strong bottom line.

A display of dozens of black leotards in a store, with other dancewear displayed in the background
Basics pieces at Bellissimo Dance Boutique. “Style always influences our choices.” Courtesy of Bellissimo.

Pointe shoes and fashion dancewear (with its frequent refresh) undeniably capture the most excitement and highest price points in a dancewear store. Basics—the dress-code leotards, tights and slippers that customers buy repeatedly—can easily be taken for granted. Yet they can play a key role in your business’ success. Here’s why:

  • The market for basics is broad: This is the category that can address clients at diverse stages of their dance lives or at different levels of interest—whether an enthusiast taking classes in her off time, or the student enrolled at a studio, or a dance mom on a budget. In fact, basics are probably the first thing a shopper thinks of when she hears the words “dance store.”
  • They drive repeat business: You can count on dancers coming in for replacement pieces—often in multiples—as the items wear out or the dancers grow out of their leos, tights and slippers. This means healthy inventory turnover.
  • Basics can keep sales steady and even robust. “Any dollar you can capture in your store is another that someone else doesn’t get online,” says Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York–based consultancy. “The more needs your core customer can fill in one place—your place—the better.”

The challenge for retailers: Even though basics may be the core items of a dancer’s wardrobe, there are many choices for where to purchase them—particularly online, where other merchants may beat you on price. So how does your store build a strategy to make your basics collection the go-to in your dance community? Here, from retail and branding experts, ideas on how to most effectively market basics to keep them uniquely on-brand and contributing to a strong bottom line.

What’s Your Basics DNA?

When you consciously make basics part of your brand story, you give customers a reason to return to your store, and yours alone. Here’s how a fashion apparel maker described one of its basic pieces to Business of Fashion: “[it] is not a basic plain-black sweater, but a basic plain-black sweater with our DNA.” 

You can send the same message for your dance basics collection. “Because our boutique focuses more on fashion than the basics, it is important that even our basics be fashion-forward,” says Patrice Powell, co-owner with Kelley Descher of Bellissimo Dance Boutique in Franklin, TN. “Our basics can be described as ‘anything but basic.’ Style always influences our choices.” Attitude Dance Boutique, a College Station, TX, destination for high-quality fashion dancewear, positions its basics “for the customers who are more budget-conscious but are still looking for high quality,” says owner Emily Mayerhoff.

Retail consultant Georganne Bender suggests another possible branding tactic to keep your basics top of mind with customers. Add your store name or private label to the basics you sell. “If the vendor won’t do it for you, then add your own sticker or alter the packaging—so the customer always remembers where they bought that particular item,” she says.

Curating Your Basics Collection

So how do you choose the basics lines you’re going to stock? A good rule of thumb is to source quality lines from manufacturers your customers know, and price them only slightly lower than your fashion items; customers are conditioned to understand this distinction from shopping department stores such as Nordstrom, or big-box stores with private labels, such as Target.

You might carry several tiers of basics: a “good” and a “better,” or a “better” and a “best,” depending on which brands are your top performers in fashion categories. “You want your basics to be a good value, but you also need to offer a basic at different price points,” says Joy Ellis, owner of Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, in Silver Spring and Frederick, MD, and Alexandria, VA.

Curation is, of course, informed by dance studios’ lists. “We offer lots of choices, but the individual studio teachers determine what they consider ‘basic,’” says Ellis. Even when your store incorporates the dress-code must-haves of nearby studios, that can be a moving target. “In the last few years, tap, jazz and hip hop have moved away from your classic dancewear into a more casual style of dress, and we have seen the market switch to more tops and bottoms, or even streetwear,” says Ellis. It can be a challenge to keep up.

“The danger with selling a standard core piece is allowing it to look like what everyone else has,” says Phibbs. “You’ve got to make it look better, different, unique. Since studio requirements apply only to color, this affords you some flexibility in your buying. Take the opportunity to stamp your store’s basics collection with your signature. Your choices can separate you from your competition, particularly the lower-priced competition online.

Articulate Your Basics Branding

Think about Bellissimo’s “anything but basic.” Beyond the pieces you choose, how would you characterize your basics collection when talking to a customer? Make sure to train your staff to use that same language. Even the words you use to describe a new basic leo’s winning features will help link it to current fashion trends. As Bender points out, “We live in a fast-fashion world where updating and changing your product mix is no longer a luxury. It’s mandatory. Stock the most beloved basics, but don’t be afraid to try new renditions on those items. Let customers vote with their dollars.”

Adopt Smart, Not Rock-Bottom, Pricing

Your basics will sell at a lower price point than fashion and performance items because customers will expect it. You can build this pricing tactic into your business plan by ordering regularly from the same manufacturers, with whom you have solid relationships, benefitting from being a long-time customer. Savvy ordering lets you pass on the best price to the customer while maintaining your profit.

Basics should have a higher turn rate than most other categories in the store, says Bender, because they are needed most often by customers. “Since they are the lifeblood of a category, manufacturers constantly run production. Shipments of basics are readily available, so you don’t need to invest in six months’ worth at a time.”

Deliver Dependability 

Dependability—for the customer and the retailer—is, in fact, a key business factor when it comes to basics. Customer loyalty, says Bender, depends on merchandise always being in stock. “Can you imagine your favorite grocery store running out of milk?” she says. “You have to be that dependable to build loyalty.” 

To deliver that dependability, seasoned owners look to reliable vendors. “We want vendors we can count on to have supplies when we need them,” says Ellis. “We also look for consistency from year to year, since most studios keep the uniforms pretty much the same. It helps them build their brand too.” Mayerhoff says she wants to know that “basics are available to restock frequently, especially during back-to-dance season.” “We want our customers to trust us,” adds Powell. So from Bellissimo’s top-selling fashion and athleisurewear to its studio basics, “we strive to only carry brands that are consistently dependable,” she says. 

Remember, They’re Not Just Commodities 

To preserve your brand and your bottom line, price cannot be the only driver. Never sacrifice quality just because basics are the most “expendable” apparel items. You’ve built your reputation on quality, and your customers will expect it from every aspect of your business. Case in point: Gap. It was a leader in well-priced, well-made clothing for the core wardrobe (khakis, the classic white shirt, the colorful tee). This value positioning caused Gap to rise so far in customer confidence that it became the go-to for casual and business apparel in the 1990s. Then it took a hit in the last decade as those same customers noticed a decline in quality and left the brand.

Add Value by Letting Customers Know You’re There For Them

One way to avoid treating basics like a tossaway, suggests Phibbs, is to “create something in the sales process that lets customers know you’ve got their back.” In addition to devoting an area of the store to basic tights and leos, consider placing some near the cash wrap. Then as customers are checking out, you can ask them if they need, say, tights; often they’ll remember at that point and stock up on a couple pairs. This tactic presents an opportunity for loyalty clubs, too. “Buy 12 pairs of tights; get the next pair free” offers are still popular with customers. “Shoppers love programs that allow them to earn points toward future purchases,” says Bender. 

Merchandise for the Upsell

Take a lesson from national brands like J. Crew that employ basics as their “capsule wardrobe,” a foundation on which they layer fashion and accessory items to create a natural upsell. “These two retailers maintain the image of a place to go for fashion items, as well as the basic items shoppers have come to know and love,” says Bender. “Every retailer that sells both basic and fashion items should strive to create a similar reputation.”

At Footlights, Ellis merchandises her basics with more fashionable options in the same fabrics and colors to upscale the merchandising: “Shoppers today want choices,” she says. “We offer hundreds of black fashion leotards in a wide range of fabrics and styles along with all the basic or standard black ones from all the major vendors.”

The Bottom Line

Every dance retailer will have a different point of view about what the basics category covers, based on a thorough and intimate understanding of her customers and their diverse needs—from entry-point apparel to core wardrobe to studio uniform. And while every dancer is different in regards to their fashion choices and preferences for technique, “generally speaking, most want to stand out and shine no matter where they are or what they are doing,” Powell points out. Bellissimo took this positioning to Instagram with the statement: “You were meant to stand out—let us help. Our amazing selection of black dancewear goes so far beyond basic, you’ll be doing the happy dance.”

Certain truths hold the same everywhere: Your basics pieces must tell your brand story, reflecting you and your values—committed to quality, dependable and always up to date. Stay true to your values, and watch your brand business soar.

Charlotte Barnard is a business writer living in New York who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.