For as long he can remember, David Webster's love affair with clothes has bordered on obsession. Then four years ago, he gained more than 100 pounds, in part because of a malfunctioning thyroid, and could no longer fit into the Polo (RL) and Tommy Bahama labels he preferred. "The clothes I was used to wearing were about impossible to find," says the 300-pound Webster, a 54-year-old trucking company owner in Las Vegas. "It was all a bunch of cheap-looking stuff."
Until recently, big-and-tall men have had far fewer stores and styles to choose from than average-size men. "Retailers haven't made it easy," says Jason Docherty, chairman of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. (Slogan: We come in all sizes.) "There's the stigma of being a big person, and on top of it, you have to go to a special store."
Now, as growth-hungry retailers seek new opportunities, some are targeting the 36 million obese men in the U.S. Casual Male Retail Group (CMRG), the largest U.S. big-and-tall chain, last year created a new store concept, Destination XL, which aims to offer better selection and service. Men's Wearhouse (MW) plans to test three big-and-tall stores in August, after noticing revenue in that category grew 40 percent faster last year than sales of regular apparel. J.C. Penney (JCP) has launched The Foundry Big & Tall Supply Co., which last month opened 10 stores in Texas, Missouri, and Kansas. "We wanted to create a specialty-store experience for this guy, a very different experience than he would get in a department store," says Foundry President Steve Lossing.
While a third of U.S. men are defined as obese, the big-and-tall market accounts for just 8 percent of total menswear sales, says researcher NPD Group. That's one-fourth the level of plus-size sales for women. Because the category is based on a physical attribute—and not a demographic such as 'tween girls—big-and-tall stores must cater to a wide swath of ages, incomes, and lifestyles. For years the sector was considered too small for most mainstream retailers.
Rising obesity rates change the equation. A generation ago few male shoppers defined themselves by body type; now more than half of U.S. men self-identify as big, tall, or short, and they're more willing to be marketed to as such, says NPD. "This becomes a very attractive and growing market as the baby boomer continues to age and obesity continues to become an ever-growing problem," says Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief retail analyst.
With their flat-screen TVs, leather chairs, and dressing rooms that mimic copper beer tanks, Penney's Foundry stores are a cross between a microbrewery and a man cave. Where local laws allow, patrons get a free beer and pretzels during happy hours as they browse the Calvin Klein and Timberland racks.
Casual Male, a longtime big-and-tall retailer, stumbled on the Destination XL concept in 2009 while trying to turn around Rochester Big & Tall, a seller of premium-priced large men's clothes that it bought in 2004. As a test, Chief Executive Officer David Levin closed nearby Casual Male stores, which had lower prices, and moved the inventory into larger, more upscale Rochester units. The stores became profitable almost immediately as lower-income customers, lured by a broader selection of apparel and brands, traded up.
A year later Casual Male opened the first Destination XL with the wider aisles and larger dressing rooms that its customers had requested. The stores have high ceilings, track lighting, and hardwood floors. They are three times larger than its old stores and carry 1,400 more items—everything from $8 sport socks to $1,800 Paul & Shark cashmere coats. "The big guy can look like everyone else now," says Webster, who visits a Las Vegas Destination XL once a week. Four stores have opened so far; the company plans 50 locations by late 2012.
Casual Male executives say the new stores should also attract the "end-of-the-rack guy," industry lingo for men on the cusp of being too big to find clothes at traditional stores. These men, loosely defined as having a waist size of 40 to 44 inches, already account for one-fifth of Casual Male's sales, and management figures they make up half the potential market. Selling them on big and tall has been tough because they find it insulting or won't admit they need to shop there, says Chief Financial Officer Dennis Hernreich. The solution, he says: give them "a real store with real people and nice stuff in it."
The bottom line: Retailers are catering to underserved big-and-tall men by launching new store concepts, with bigger dressing rooms and more selection.