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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Longtime friends in business together for long time

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Randi Szymkowicz, left, and Rhonda Finkelstein of Legs Plus and Bra Boutique have spent the last 30 years helping Toronto-area women discover well-fitted underpinnings.

The practice of social work is associated with helping families, seniors, children and other people at risk, not necessarily with helping women find the right undergarment.

Likewise for psychometrics, the theory and technique of psychological measurement.

Yet in the case of two Toronto women, careers in those fields merged rather seamlessly into one selling and fitting ladies with the proper “underpinnings” – as in bras, “shape wear” (what used to be called girdles), leggings and other lingerie items.

Thirty years ago, Rhonda Finkelstein and Randi Szymkowicz left behind their careers in the helping professions to found another sort of helping business: Legs Plus and Bra Boutique, a small-scale shop catering to the needs of female customers.

Located in the “Pickle Barrel plaza” on Leslie Street south of Cummer Avenue, the business boasts a loyal clientele that travel from far and wide to be fitted by the ladies at Legs Plus.

“We pride ourselves on our personal service,” said Finkelstein.

In fact, it’s the care and attention to their customers that Finkelstein believes has powered the business for 30 years.

As a smallish business, Legs Plus can’t compete with the big box stores on price, she acknowledged. Yet her clients are largely repeat customers, and women travel from around the province – they even have a regular who drives up from Buffalo – to be fitted at the store.

“It’s the way we attack the situation,” said Finkelstein. “It’s approached in a way that’s casual, easy and comfortable.

“We have some things that big box stores and other lingerie boutiques have, but it’s the service and how we present ourselves to our customers” that distinguishes Legs Plus, she said.

“It’s a warm atmosphere.”

Much of that comes from their background in the helping professions, but some of it is a result of their experience working in retail when they were younger.

Finkelstein believes the personal touch that she, Szymkowicz and their staff present makes all the difference.

“I’ve been fitting bras for well over 30 years,” said Finkelstein. “I love being with customers.”

The customers appreciate the hands-on service, as well as undergarments that hold up over time. Plus, having the right underwear make women feel good about themselves, Finkelstein said.

“The bra is one of the first things to go on in the morning and the last to come off at night. It needs to be comfortable. Women need support… If you’re not comfortable, you’re not happy. We try to make women as comfortable as we can with the tools available to us.”

“It’s women helping other women with an undergarment,” said Szymkowicz. ‘If they feel good about the undergarment they’re wearing on the inside, they will feel good about themselves on the outside.”

Given its 30-year track record, it’s clear the business offers customers something of value. Finkelstein and Szymkowicz are now fitting the daughters of previous customers.

The business remains profitable, although as a privately held company, Finkelstein and Szymkowicz won’t reveal exact figures.

Merchandise can range in price from a bare-bones bra that sells for $40 to a $190 model “with all the bells and whistles” – better quality, longevity and more attention to details, said Szymkowicz.

Since opening in 1982, they’ve noticed some changes in the sector. More of their merchandize is assemble abroad than before; there are some products, such as sports bras, that have become more popular, and sizes are going up, up, up.

D cups have given way to a whole range of sizes, up to and including L cups. “We’re dealing with big women who need help,” Finkelstein said.

Another thing that’s expanding is the company. “The business is growing and continues to grow, particularly after expanding to the main level eight years ago,” said Szymkowicz.

That move saw the business go from a 500-square-foot space on the second floor of the plaza to a 2,000-square-foot location one flight down.

Being on street level exposed them to more walk-in traffic and allowed them to carry more merchandise.

They share the current premises with another, complementary, business, Beachwear Unlimited, a bathing suit boutique. Not coincidentally, it’s owned by their mothers, Marilyn Snider and Elly Sherman.

In fact, said Finkelstein, retail runs in both their families.

Her grandfather, an immigrant, was a furrier, while Szymkowicz’s grandfather owned a ladies’ clothing store.

The families have been friends for generations.

Both women have grown children, but Finkelstein isn’t ready to pass the reins just yet. “I love it. It’s what I do,” she said.

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