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More than just steel-toed boots: Mark’s Work Wearhouse will soon be called just Mark’s as it seeks more female customers.Kevin Van Paassen

Jacklyn has underwear issues.

In her 40s, she's a working mother with a sagging figure who's no longer comfortable wearing a thong or G-string. But she's frustrated with the panty alternatives. The material either rides up on her behind or the elastic digs in and shows unflattering lines through her clothes.

Now an unlikely retailer thinks it has a solution for Jacklyn. Mark's Work Wearhouse, known for outfitting men with construction boots and overalls, has developed the Perfect Fit Panty.

Mark's spends tens of thousands of dollars a year trying to figure out what Jacklyn wants. She's the chain's prototypical female customer who in the past shopped there for her husband but today has become an increasingly important customer in her own right.

"Ladies lingerie is a huge area of grief for Jacklyn," said Lara Smith, general merchandise manager at Mark's in Calgary. "She tells us: 'If you guys solve this problem, you would make us all really happy, because panties and underwear are a nightmare."

Mark's is all over the panties, as well as women's camisoles, tops, jeans, dresses and dress shoes. In its mission to court more women, the retailer is focusing more than ever on lingerie, with a big push in 2010 on the Perfect Fit Panty.

Panty sales are critical to Mark's. Just as groceries are a frequent purchase that lures customers to other chains, underwear brings women into fashion stores more often than other apparel.

The math is simple: Women shop for underwear five times a year, compared with just twice a year for other casual clothing, Ms. Smith said. Today the retailer is counting on Jacklyn to snap up its new $5 panty, and then pick up its "date night dress" for $60 (with body-smoothing panels and built-in bra) or a Mary Jane pair of heels ($100) with anti-slip soles.

"These strategies for groceries or the perfect panty aren't about getting somebody who has never shopped there before," said Kyle Murray, director of the School of Retailing at University of Alberta's School of Business.

"It's about getting a bigger share of the wallet from those customers who do shop there and now can spend money at Mark's that they might have spent elsewhere."

Still, Mark's faces the challenge of not scaring off its loyal male customers by dressing up its stores with panties and camisoles, said Prof. Murray, who teaches marketing. "When you extend a brand you run the risk of extending it too far and alienating some of the core market."

The strategy at Mark's borrows a page from the playbook of its parent, Canadian Tire Corp. The purveyor of tires and tools is testing food offerings to bolster customer visits and spending. Wooing women also is important because they influence more than 80 per cent of all purchasing decisions, Prof. Murray said.

Already the efforts at Mark's seem to be paying off. In its fourth quarter, even as the chain's overall sales slipped almost 1 per cent, its women's business enjoyed an 11.4-per-cent lift. Women's wear makes up 26 per cent of the retailer's almost $1-billion of annual sales and is internally forecast to reach one-third of its revenue in five years.

Now the retailer is turning to the Perfect Fit Panty to help get a bigger lift. One of its recent customers is Kaileen Millard-Ruff, who purchased the panty. The mother of a toddler, she knows all about struggling to squeeze into skimpy underwear that doesn't stay in place and leaves a panty line.

She's sold on the new panty at Mark's. "I'm not sacrificing being sexy because I'm buying something that is comfortable," said the market researcher at Gfk Research Dynamics, who turned 40 this month.

Women such as Ms. Millard-Ruff - and Jacklyn - were top-of-mind when Ms. Smith and her team went about designing the new panty.

Over Perrier and cookies, customers on Ms. Smith's advisory panels, which meet eight times a year to brainstorm product ideas, complained about panty "pain."

That was two years ago. Within eight months, Ms. Smith handed 10 different panty samples to 100 customers to try. The one that she finally picked had a slightly wider elastic band than the others and a cotton-spandex fabric "to work with women's curves," she said.

When the first panties appeared on store shelves as a test last June, demand was so hot that the outlets couldn't keep them in stock, Ms. Smith said. Today its television ad touts them as the "no-line, no-wedgie" panty with the tag line: "Comfort is the new sexy." This spring, Mark's will carry them in an array of colours and prints, as well as in lace and a nylon stretch.

"Within two years we're going to sell one million units of these a year," she predicted. "That's a lot of panties."

At $5 a pop, the price is at least twice as much as underwear at other retailers, she said. "We're not shy about price. It doesn't have to be the cheapest but it has to solve a problem and make a difference."

It's part of a broader strategy at Mark's to use technology and other innovations in its garments to respond to specific customer needs, picked up through its research. Its slogan: Clothes that work. For Jacklyn, it means tank tops with built-in bras, pants with support panels to hold in the tummy and stretchy material for an expanding waistline.

Even shoes get a makeover with anti-slip bottoms and "memory foam" interiors to deliver the fashionable and comfortable footwear that Jacklyn covets.

To put her more at ease, the retailer has shrunk its name to simply Mark's - dropping "Work Wearhouse" - in a pilot that will spread to 30 of its 378 stores this year from just a handful currently.

What's next? Bras, which Mark's is now testing. "Jacklyn wants comfort and coverage," Ms. Smith said. "We think we have something really good. The customer will tell us and then we will react accordingly."