by Kevin Coupe

When I read this story in the New York Times, my first thought was that it was a perfect Eye-Opener.

My second thought was that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger must have rolled over in his grave when this story got published in the Times.

The story was about condoms. But more than that, it was about disruption of an industry that in some ways had calcified. The Times noted that “condoms get a bad rap for being a bad wrap,” and that “men often complain of discomfort, diminished sensation and poor fit. A recent federal study found only a third of American men use them,” which isn’t good seeing as they are “the only birth-control method that protects against most sexually transmitted diseases.”

This is where the disruption comes in.

Because the story was really about how a number of companies, spurred on by relaxed standards set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are testing new technologies that could address customer complaints and deal with the public health issue.

“A competition sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sought ideas for more pleasurable condoms in 2013 but has not yet brought one to market.,” he story says. “While some winners are still pursuing prototypes, others have given up.” One of these was something called an origami condom, described as “pleated to allow movement inside.”

And then there’s the “Boston-based company (that) has begun selling custom-fit condoms in 60 sizes, in combinations of 10 lengths and nine circumferences.” The company provides online “a print-at-home fitting kit that men use to determine the right size to order.” (The reason this is important, according to the story, is that most condoms were designed with men’s imaginations in mind, not reality.)

Like I said, an Eye-Opener.

But, in think about this story, I recalled an ad that I hear a lot on satellite radio, for something called the Third Love bra, which actually sells some 59 sizes of bras, with 15 additional sizes in development. The big thing about the Third Love bra, apparently, is that it comes in half-cup sizes. (The commercial makes the salient point that if shoes come in half-sizes and various widths, why shouldn’t bras? Good point. Never thought about it. I guess the same could be said for condoms…)

I did a little research, and found a Chicago Tribune story about the company, and how its founder, Heidi Zak, says that “more than 500,000 women remain on the company's waiting list for bras in sizes like 44G and 46K.”

The Tribune writes that “Zak is among online retailers who are culling customer complaints, preferences and measurements and arriving at the same conclusion: American women, who on average wear about a size 16, need bigger sizes.”

The story goes on: “Instead of taking one size - 34B - and sizing it up or down, Zak started from scratch, measuring hundreds of women of all sizes and recording their dimensions. She created a Fit Finder quiz, which is still the first thing customers encounter on the company's website, to gauge such things as body shape, height and breast shape. More than 4 million women have submitted their measurements, providing countless data points for Zak and her team to mine.”

"This entire business is data-driven," Zak says. "And ultimately it's about one thing: Being inclusive and serving all women.”

The lesson is not about condoms or bras, it seems to me. The lesson is that retailers looking to compete in hostile territory and differentiate themselves would do well to identify underserved markets and mine them for opportunities.

The results could be Eye-Openers.