By Kathy Eaton
For the Hollywood Star
“Having The Pencil Test on Alberta Street has been so awesome. Both my business partner and myself are so thrilled to have pretty bras in our own unusual sizes available right here in Portland. Holly is The Bra Lady and knows her stuff,” said customer Marissa Rodriguez, who also happens to be the owner/partner of nearby abrahams&duffy, a women’s clothing boutique.
Some Pencil Test customers recall what the shop name refers to: A young woman placing a pencil under her breast. If the pencil stays put, she’s ready for her first bra. Store owner Holly Powell’s goal is to help fit women with the right-size bra. There are department and other specialty stores in Portland that sell bras, including mastectomy forms, nursing bras and bras for full-busted women, but The Pencil Test exclusively markets bras for large-breasted women.
“Customers are desperate for the products I carry,” said Powell, although she didn’t anticipate that 25 percent of her customers would be tourists. Women who are vacationing or on business travel in Portland are seeking opportunities to buy bras that are not available to them where they live. On-line purchasing of bras is a nightmare, according to Powell. “You buy six bras and end up returning four, wasting time and effort and incurring shipping charges; and your new bra may still not fit properly.”
Powell has the expertise and takes the time to properly fit customers. Her business has expanded largely by word of mouth from satisfied customers. The secret is getting the band measurement correct. The old method of measuring under and over the bust to determine bra size doesn’t work.
“Bras made today have a lot more stretch, so if the band is the exact fit, the bra will serve you. You need support so your shoulders don’t do all the work, which can result in other problems,” said Powell. A good fit, she said, is indicated by a woman who stands up straighter and has more flexibility.
A graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania who once interned with the State Department in Washington, D.C., Powell is a fourth-generation Oregonian. She’s also a former school teacher who lived in England for five years and learned the European model of sizing bras for proper fit. When she returned to Portland in 2009 with no hope of getting a teaching position, she devised a business plan and opened The Pencil Test in December 2011. She’s demonstrated that a small business can compete on price by offering brands that are not available at a lower price point and by not charging a mark-up fee for fitting.
“A customer doesn’t have to buy the bras they try on at the store,” said Powell. “My goal is to get the right fit for the customer while avoiding sticker shock for buying bras that fit.”
Comfortable space for customers
Weekends are her busiest times. Her customers range in age from 12 to 85. The store is comfortable for grandmothers as well as granddaughters. Her business model does not include sales of mastectomy forms or nursing bras, which would require commitment to a different clientele.
Powell also carries swimsuits and sports bras for active women, and she’ll soon be adding a sleepwear line. Athletic bras sales account for 20 percent of her sales.
“The store is about bras and finding a good fit for women who haven’t bought the right size bra to support them. It’s not a boudoir store like Victoria’s Secret,” said Powell.
Powell believes she can positively impact every customer, changing their world by increasing their comfort and confidence once they’re fitted in the right bra. “It’s about influencing the way a woman looks at the world and the way others view her,” Powell said.
For more information: The Pencil Test, 2728 N. E. Alberta St., (971) 266-8611, www.thepenciltest.com. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.