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Big Girls Don't Buy?

Q: I am a manufacturer of plus-size intimate apparel. My company fills a void and is well-differentiated from the competition. Unfortunately, buyers at most large stores have their heads in the sand with regard to this market. Any suggestions on how I get the word out? -- G.K., New York

A: With America's waistline continuing to expand, the plus-size market is certainly one of the fastest-growing sectors of the women's ready-to-wear industry, experts say. Yet, as you've found, it continues to elude manufacturers and stymie retailers. "This is a market waiting impatiently to be listened to," says Andrea Graham, president of GSS Communiqations, an advertising and marketing consultancy based in Los Angeles. "With your help, the buyers who lend an ear to what these customers really want have the potential to make their stores -- and you -- very successful."

SIZABLE MARKET. Rather than banging your head trying to get through to department stores, start by taking your line to different buyers. "If the buyers don't see it fitting with their merchandise plan or customer, than they are the wrong buyers for you," says Jean Gipe, interim chairwoman of the apparel merchandising and management department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She recommends that you focus on specialty stores that feature plus-size clothing, lingerie shops willing to carry a range of sizes, catalogs that cater to larger women, and the Internet.

Paul Ratoff, a small business consultant with Placentia, Calif.-based Strategy Development Group agrees. "There are many specialty stores that focus on large-sized women," he says. "There are also Web sites that do the same. Having such a narrow product line means that you must look at a variety of channels. Narrow on product means broad on distribution channels." This is a way to establish a strong customer base and pique interest from buyers at national chain stores.

Once your product line is well-established, then consider contacting some of the major department stores that have plus-size, and/or lingerie departments. When you do that, your job will be to educate reluctant buyers about the sales potential for your product line. "Statistics abound as to the percentage of American women who wear a size 14 or larger, so you need to remind the buyers how much business they're missing," Graham says.

IT'S SHOWTIME! Commission a small research study, using focus groups of prospective customers led by a trained facilitator, to capture opinions and preferences about both the plus-size intimate category in general and your products specifically, she recommends. Videotape the sessions and get releases from the participants so you can edit short (five- to seven-minute) excerpts of the tapes and use them as a marketing tool, either in direct mail or at sales appointments. "This way, your customers will deliver your sales pitch for you," Graham notes.

Another marketing idea is to display sample products in a context, emphasizing that they fill a void in the store's offerings. If your products are luxurious, Graham suggests, display them alongside competitive items that are functional, but homely. "Then ask the buyer, 'If you were going out for a special romantic dinner, which would you rather be wearing?'" If your products are designed for comfort, rather than glamour, the question might be: "What would you rather be wearing if you were stuck in coach on a 12-hour flight?"

Sharon J. Berman, principal of Berbay Corp., a Los Angeles-based marketing consultancy, suggests taking that a step further, in hopes of generating some free publicity. "Pitch the idea of putting on a plus-size intimate apparel fashion show," she says. "It may not be the first, but it's at the stage where it's still attention-getting." And that attention might be just want your company needs.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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