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Underwear Overachievers: The men behind one of the nation's largest online bra retailers

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Bill Richardson, left, and Noah Wrubel credit Oprah Winfrey for getting more women interested in the right bra fit, which offered a lift to their sales.
Bill Richardson, left, and Noah Wrubel credit Oprah Winfrey for getting more women interested in the right bra fit, which offered a lift to their sales. - ()

Noah Wrubel and Bill Richardson can tell you all the entrepreneurial steps they used in the past 15 years to turn the Edison-based Bare Necessities into the largest specialty online retailer of women's intimate apparel in the United States — one that did more than $66 million in sales last year.

But it's much more fun to talk about the day that changed everything — the day Oprah Winfrey did a show on bras.

It was in 2005 when Winfrey said 85 percent of women were wearing the wrong bra. She said women could look 10 or even 20 pounds lighter with the right fit, and problems like sliding bra straps or persistent back fat could be a thing of the past.

Before the show had ended, viewers were on the Internet in pursuit of the perfect fit. Many of them found Bare Necessities.

"In '05, people would run to Google and search on something (Oprah) had said," Wrubel, the CEO and co-founder, said. "Had she had a bra revolution in '99, 2000, that would have been very different.

"The timing was very good."

Of course, timing only matters if you are ready to take advantage of the opportunity. And Wrubel and Richardson, co-founder and chief operating officer, put in many years to become an overnight sensation.

Wrubel grew up in the business. His father and uncle owned several lingerie stores that went by the name Bare Necessities. So the industry knowledge was there, but Wrubel and Richardson didn't set out to create an online outlet for the family stores. They decided to create a separate Internet company using the Bare Necessities name.

Their online offshoot went live in December 1998, powered by a 56K ISDN line. In the early days, the founders had orders synced to their beepers, getting a notification every time an order was placed.

The goal back then was to get more than one order per hour. Today, it receives as many as 4,000 orders per day.

And while it may seem impractical — or perhaps just impersonal — to sell undergarments over the Internet, Wrubel and Richardson say the opposite is true.

"We're able to explain a bra, explain what it's for. We're able to show it on," Wrubel said. "And so for all of those reasons, it's a great product online.

Bare Necessities has an inventory of some 540,000 items in its on-site warehouse. The company does all its own photography on models, never mannequins, so women can get a better sense of how something will look when it's on.

But fit is even more important than how a product looks. That's what Oprah was preaching seven years ago, and that's why Bare Necessities sends its customer service reps through about 20 hours of training in the art of fitting a woman for a bra without ever laying eyes on them.

"We ask about what bra they're currently in, how it feels, what works about it, what doesn't work," Wrubel said. "Often times, bra fitting is more of a troubleshooting exercise than it is about the numbers."

And that hands-off approach resonates with a lot of customers, Richardson said.

"For a lot of women, it's intimidating to go into a physical store," he said. "The idea of doing it in the privacy of their own home is appealing."

Although bras are big business, it's not all of what Bare Necessities does. It sells sleepwear, swimsuits and even workout clothes. They also sell men's underwear.

And that expanded product line comes with growth for the company.

Bare Necessities moved into a 100,000- square-foot building several years ago and recently completed several major construction projects that add a 2,000-square-foot photo studio, a training room and more office space to the property.

The company has added 44 employees since 2012, with 16 open positions still left to fill. The founders said they have no interest in selling to a competitor — and they have no intention of leaving New Jersey.

"If you want to become the company that you want to become, there's certain things along the way that you must invest in," Wrubel said. "We've definitely doubled down on New Jersey, and we've doubled down on staying here."

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