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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Selling bathing suits during a blizzard

By Dick Hirsch
Like most of the rest of us, Deborah Leavitt has heard plenty of well intentioned business advice, including warnings about trying to sell ice to eskimos or carrying coal to Newcastle.
She has ignored all the cautionary suggestions and embarked on her mission, dedicated to the art and science of selling bathing suits during the winter in Western New York. On a recent day during the frigid weeks of early February, when temperatures were in the single digits and wind chill readings were capturing headlines, she was busy selling swim suits in Buffalo. The snow was eddying in unpredictable fashion, closing schools and blocking roads, but she was busy selling bathing suits.
She sells year around, of course, but January and February are her biggest months by far. Go figure. Yes, her slowest time is around the Fourth of July.
It all started about seven years ago when Deborah, who lives in Olean, was a regular in the pool at the YMCA on Wayne Street. Three mornings a week she would join her class for a program of water exercise.
“The water is a terrific place to exercise, even if you’re not the greatest swimmer,” she said. “So I would do resistance exercises, and various stretches and movements, all designed to keep you fit, flexible and slim.”
Many of the women knew that years earlier she had operated a dress shop in Olean. They began complaining to her about the difficulty they had in selecting swim suits. They began suggesting she return to the retail business and sell bathing suits.
One of the undeniable facts of life is that few people, men or women, look as good in a bathing suit as they would like. I’ve known many men, for example, who would walk along the beach struggling to hold their breath and suck in their gut.
“Yes,” agreed Deborah, “there is no doubt that buying a swim suit is one of the most intimidating things a woman has to do.”
She took that into consideration, along with all the other difficult lessons of retail, and went ahead and founded Swimwear on the Go, an operation with a difference. She takes the merchandise to health clubs and fitness centers.
“I started with an inventory of about three dozen samples,” she recalled. “Now we have an inventory of 6,000 suits from about 75 manufacturers.”
It works this way: Deborah and her partner, Robert Givan, make appointments at exercise facilities with pools around western and central New York and parts of Pennsylvania. They travel from place to place in a motor home, pulling a 27-foot trailer loaded with swimsuits, bathing caps, wraps, goggles and related items. They might spend two days in Buffalo, a couple days in Rochester, then off to Syracuse and locations in between. At this point, they have relationships with about 60 different places. Just recently she had an inquiry from Scranton, Pennsylvania, asking when Swimwear on the Go could make a stop there.
“To tell the truth I never thought swim wear could be a profitable venture, but I decided to do it anyway because I like retail and I love working with people,” she said.
Most of her customers---about 90 percent---are women, since many men don’t consider bathing suits to be a fashion item. Some are satisfied to jump in wearing a pair of gym shorts or old Bermuda shorts. Nevertheless, she does carry a full line for men and children. She promotes styles described as “Sarong, Surplice, Swimdress, Tankini, Bikini and more,” and sells them for $49, which she says is considerably below most stores. The most popular size Deborah sells is a 14 and her customers are generally modest and conservative, although she has merchandise for every taste and figure.
Her proudest boast is her ability to fit women some of whom are a little big here and a little small there, if you get the picture. When she sets up her display, she unloads racks containing about 2,000 suits, an eye-popping display.
“I professionally fit every woman to make her look her best,” she said. “When they buy a suit, they feel good about it because I don’t think anybody can fit a swimsuit like I do.”
Swimwear on the Go has been in business since 2000 and has become a profitable enterprise. In addition to the road show agenda, there is a retail store in Olean. Only one problem remains unsolved: Deborah Leavitt has no time to put on a suit and jump in the pool.



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