Re­tail­ers that ig­nore plus sizes are think­ing too small

▶▶Re­tail­ers seek prof­its in trendier fash­ions for larger women ▶▶Many “wouldn’t have been made in plus sizes five years ago”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Shelly Banjo of Bloomberg Gad­fly, with Rani Molla

Cloth­ing re­tail­ers are strug­gling to in­crease sales as shop­pers spend more of their money on elec­tron­ics and ex­pe­ri­ences, rather than on threads. So you’d think, faced with an op­por­tu­nity in a $20 bil­lion cat­e­gory out­pac­ing the growth of the over­all in­dus­try, mer­chants would be ea­ger to jump on board. Not ex­actly when it comes to women’s plus-size cloth­ing, which some re­tail­ers still rel­e­gate to bar­gain­base­ment sta­tus.

That seems short­sighted, since an­nual U.S. sales of women’s plus-size ap­parel, of­ten de­fined as “Misses” sizes 14 and higher, rose 17 per­cent, from $17.4 bil­lion in 2013 to $20.4 bil­lion for the year ended Fe­bru­ary 2016. In that time, over­all ap­parel sales in­creased 7 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to NPD Group. Cus­tomer de­mand could push sales of plus sizes even higher if re­tail­ers would fully em­brace larger-size ap­parel, says NPD an­a­lyst Mar­shal Co­hen.

The av­er­age Amer­i­can woman now wears a Misses size 16 to 18, ac­cord­ing to new re­search from Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah Chris­tel. She and her co-au­thor, Su­san Dunn, dis­pute a com­monly cited fig­ure that the av­er­age Amer­i­can woman is a size 14, which they say is de­rived from 20-year-old data. Re­tail­ers such as J.C. Pen­ney have re­cently added sizes be­yond the tra­di­tional 14 to 26, in some cases going up to 32. “Within six weeks of of­fer­ing ex­tended sizes this spring, we sold out,” says James Rhee, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of plus-size re­tailer Ash­ley Ste­wart.

It’s hard to de­ter­mine the ex­act per­cent­age of Amer­i­can women who wear plus sizes, but an­a­lysts say the num­ber is grow­ing. And while cloth­ing size doesn’t ex­actly track with weight, the per­cent­age of women in the U.S. who are over­weight or obese, based on their body mass in­dex, hit 66 per­cent in 2014, up from 51 per­cent in 1994.

In April, Pen­ney an­nounced the de­but of Bou­tique, a new in­store area for plus-size cus­tomers. Bou­tiques will open in al­most 200 Pen­ney stores. As part of a re­newed push into trendier plus-size clothes, Pen­ney on May 1 also launched an in­house cloth­ing brand, Bou­tique+, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pro­ject Run­way fash­ion de­signer Ash­ley Nell Tip­ton. The re­tailer has long of­fered plus-size cloth­ing. But this line, be­ing in­tro­duced in 500 stores, is crafted with plus-size cus­tomers’ needs “in mind from the be­gin­ning, rather than just tak­ing ex­ist­ing cloth­ing lines and dis­tort­ing them to fit a big­ger size,” says Si­iri Dougherty, who over­sees women’s ap­parel at Pen­ney.

Pen­ney’s em­brace of larger sizes re­mains the ex­cep­tion. The idea of push­ing plus sizes at depart­ment stores and other main­stream re­tail­ers tends to go in and out of fash­ion, Co­hen says. Re­tail­ers trot out a new de­signer or plus-size line with much fan­fare, only to kill or shrink the line later. That turns off shop­pers seek­ing plus-size cloth­ing and causes them to stop com­ing to that re­tailer for shoes, jew­elry, and other ac­ces­sories, too.

Re­tail­ers’ fick­le­ness has driven many plus-size shop­pers to e-com­merce

sites—where there’s more va­ri­ety and con­sis­tency—at a faster rate than other shop­pers, says Ash­ley Ste­wart’s Rhee. The $150 mil­lion com­pany’s web­site now brings in a third of its rev­enue, up from noth­ing in 2011.

It’s not that tra­di­tional depart­ment stores and cloth­ing chains com­pletely ig­nore larger women; of the 25 largest cloth­ing re­tail­ers by rev­enue, all but four have some plus-size op­tions. But their of­fer­ings are more limited than the ones in the so-called straight sizes. A re­cent search re­vealed about 16 per­cent of dresses on Pen­ney’s web­site are plus-size. That falls to 8.5 per­cent at Nord­strom.com. Nike has only five items on its web­site in plus, and a search for “plus size” on Un­der Ar­mour’s web­site calls up a land­ing page that says “Sorry, we’re cur­rently working on more gear in this cat­e­gory.” Plus-size of­fer­ings can be even more dif­fi­cult to find in re­tail­ers’ phys­i­cal stores, which typ­i­cally stock fewer items and have less va­ri­ety than e-com­merce sites.

The ap­par­ent disconnect be­tween what re­tail­ers of­fer and what cus­tomers need stems partly from an en­dur­ing view in the in­dus­try that of­ten sees plus sizes as den­i­grat­ing to a brand. And many re­tail­ers con­sider plus­size gar­ments an an­cil­lary busi­ness. So re­tail­ers com­monly rel­e­gate plus sizes to far­away cor­ners of their stores and stock clothes de­signed to cover women up, rather than give them the bold, bright, fash­ion-for­ward styles they of­fer in smaller sizes. Oth­ers of­ten ditch broader ef­forts, as Limited par­ent L Brands did with Elo­quii, a plus-size off­shoot it sold in 2013, af­ter roughly two years.

Man­u­fac­tur­ing plus-size cloth­ing isn’t as sim­ple as mak­ing a larger ver­sion of a straight-size gar­ment. In straight sizes, a de­signer cre­ates, say, a dress for a size 4 or 6 model, then grades up and down from there by a pro­por­tional amount. But vari­a­tions in body shape are greater at big­ger sizes, so de­sign­ers have to cre­ate more pat­terns—rais­ing costs.

Jas­mine El­der, de­signer of plus­size brand Jibri, says such cloth­ing also re­quires more fab­ric, cut in a greater num­ber of pieces to ac­com­mo­date a woman’s curves, as well as ad­di­tional labor to sew them to­gether. Many fac­to­ries in Bangladesh, China, and Viet­nam, which typ­i­cally make clothes for sev­eral re­tail­ers at a time, of­ten aren’t set up to make cloth­ing in larger sizes, and shift­ing gears is costly, says Linda Heasley, CEO of Lane Bryant, a plus-size re­tailer owned by As­cena Re­tail Group. “And it’s not like we are going to charge more for these clothes. That’s not the right thing to do,” she says.

Re­cent Lane Bryant mar­ket­ing cam­paigns such as “Plus Is Equal” and “I’m No An­gel”—a dig at Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret mod­els—are part of its at­tempts to adapt to the in­creas­ing de­mands of plus­size cus­tomers, who now ex­pect re­tail­ers to de­liver faster fash­ion. Plus­size cus­tomers are look­ing for brighter col­ors and more fit­ted cloth­ing, ac­cord­ing to data from Gwyn­nie Bee, a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that pe­ri­od­i­cally sends mem­bers boxes of stylish plus-size clothes based on their web­site se­lec­tions, which can be re­turned, rented, or bought out­right.

To­day’s younger shop­pers are also more com­fort­able wear­ing the midriffre­veal­ing crop tops and leather shorts that “truth­fully wouldn’t have been made in plus sizes five years ago,” Lane Bryant’s Heasley says. The re­tailer also has launched an ac­tivewear line to meet the grow­ing plus-size de­mand.

While Pen­ney de­clined to pro­vide fig­ures, it says ini­tial tests have shown that its new Bou­tique and con­tem­po­rary plus-size line have helped en­er­gize sales. “The plus-size woman to­day is proud of who she is, and she wants a beau­ti­ful place to shop,” Pen­ney’s Dougherty says. “It’s amaz­ing the in­crease we got in sales dur­ing pi­lot tests by just mak­ing those changes.”

De­signer Chris­tian Siri­ano’s plus-size line for Lane Bryant fea­tures ac­tress Danielle Brooks This one-shoul­der sheath dress, avail­able in sizes up to 28, is sexy and form-fit­ting The dress’s polyesterspan­dex fab­ric adds a lit­tle give Col­ors are bright and fash­ion­able

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