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”
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