Retailers have a plus-size problem.
Clothing retailers across the board are struggling to grow sales as shoppers spend more of their money on electronics and experiences, rather than on threads. So you'd think, faced with a $20 billion market opportunity in a category outpacing the overall industry, retailers would be eager to jump on board. Not exactly.
Annual U.S. sales of women's plus-size apparel, often defined as a "Misses" size 14 and higher , rose by 17 percent to $20.4 billion in 2016, from $17.4 billion in 2013. During that time, overall apparel sales increased by 7 percent, according to NPD Group.
Customer demand could push sales of plus-size clothing even higher -- if only retailers would fully embrace the category, NPD analyst Marshal Cohen told Gadfly.
Instead, plus-size fashion tends to yo-yo at department stores and other mainstream retailers, Cohen said. They trot out a new designer or plus-size line with much fanfare, only to kill or shrink the line later when the economy turns south or they shift focus. That turns off shoppers looking for plus-size clothing and nudges them to stop coming to that retailer for shoes, jewelry, and other accessories, too.
This fickle attitude has driven plus-size shoppers to e-commerce sites -- where there's more variety and consistency -- at a faster rate than other shoppers, James Rhee, CEO of plus-size retailer Ashley Stewart, told Gadfly. It's also helping attract new customers to specialty stores such as Ashley Stewart: The 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 don't offer dresses, shirts and other clothing in plus sizes -- out of the 25 largest clothing retailers by revenue, all but four have some plus-size options. It's just that their offerings are more limited than the ones in the so-called straight sizes.
For instance, a recent search revealed about 16 percent of dresses on J.C. Penney's website are plus-size. That number falls to 8.5 percent on Nordstrom.com. Nike has only five items on its website in plus sizes, and a search for "plus size" on Under Armour's website reveals a landing page that says "Sorry, we're currently working on more gear in this category." Plus-size offerings can be even harder to find in retailers' physical stores, which typically stock fewer items and have less variety than e-commerce sites.
It's hard to determine the exact percentage of American women who wear plus sizes, but the number is growing.
The average American woman now wears between a Misses size 16 to 18, according to new research from Washington State University assistant professor Deborah Christel, which is currently under peer review. Christel and her co-author, Susan Dunn, dispel a commonly-touted figure that the average American woman is a size 14, which they say is derived from 20-year-old data. Retailers such as Ashley Stewart and 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," Ashley Stewart's Rhee said.
And while clothing size doesn't exactly track with weight, the percentage of women in the U.S. that are overweight or obese, based on their body mass index, increased to 66 percent in 2014, up from 51 percent in 1994.
The apparent disconnect between what retailers offer and what customers need stems partly from an old, enduring stigma in the fashion industry, which has seen plus sizes as denigrating to a brand. And retailers often consider plus-size an ancillary business, meaning they lack understanding of and dedication to the category.
Retailers commonly relegate plus-size clothing 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 elsewhere. Others ditch the business altogether, as Limited parent L Brands did with Eloquii, a plus-size offshoot it shut down after roughly two years. After an outcry from consumers who fell in love with the brand, Eloquii was snatched up by private investors during a liquidation sale and relaunched, later attracting additional funds from venture capital.
Practically, it can cost more to make plus-size clothing. It's not 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 and then grades up and down from there by a proportional amount. But variations in shape are greater at bigger sizes, so designers have to create more patterns.
Jasmine Elder, designer of plus-size brand JIBRI, told Gadfly plus-size clothing also requires more fabric, cut in a greater number of pieces to accommodate a woman's curves, and added labor to sew them together.
Factories in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, which typically make clothes for several retailers at a time, are often not even set up to make clothing in larger sizes, and shifting gears is costly, said 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 said.
Recent Lane Bryant marketing campaigns such as "Plus is Equal" and "I'm No Angel," an apparent dig at Victoria's Secret models, are part of the retailer's attempts to adapt to the increasing demands of plus-size customers, who now expect retailers to deliver faster fashion that's on-trend. Plus-size customers are now looking for brighter colors and more fitted clothing, according to data from Gwynnie Bee, a plus-size clothing subscription service.
Younger customers, which Lane Bryant internally refers to as shoppers "born her size," are also more comfortable wearing the midriff-revealing crop tops and leather shorts that "truthfully wouldn't have been made in plus sizes five years ago," Lane Bryant's Heasley said. The retailer also launched an activewear line to meet the growing plus-size demand that mainstream brands such Nike and Under Armour seemed to be ignoring.
Nike, though, does make a handful of bright activewear tights and tanks in plus sizes for J.C. Penney's Boutique, a new in-store area J.C. Penney announced in April (though Nike hasn't confirmed a partnership). The Boutique will be in nearly 200 J.C. Penney stores and cater specifically to plus-size customers.
As part of a renewed push into trendier, plus-size clothes, J.C. Penney also launched a new house brand called Boutique+ in collaboration with "Project Runway" fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton. J.C. Penney has long offered plus-size clothing, but this new line, which launched May 1 in 500 stores, was crafted with plus-size customer's needs "in mind from the beginning, rather than just taking existing clothing lines and distorting them to fit a bigger size," Siiri Dougherty, who oversees women’s apparel at J.C. Penney, told Gadfly.
Initial tests showed that creating a new boutique and contemporary line especially for women wearing plus sizes helped energize sales, though J.C. Penney declined to provide figures.
"The plus-size woman today is proud of who she is, and she wants a beautiful place to shop; it's amazing the increase we got in sales during pilot tests by just making those changes," Dougherty said.
Other retailers looking for similar sales boosts should follow suit.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
The history around sizing in America is long and fascinating. In short, while men's clothing sizes are logically determined by measuring the inches around a man's neck or waist, women's clothing is delineated by a set of arbitrary sizes originating from a survey of 15,000 women compiled in 1939 and 1940 by the National Bureau of Home Economics, a government agency that was once part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A trade group of mail-order retailers, such as Sears, then cobbled together that data, as well as data from 6,500 women in the army during World War II and other measurement studies, and created a commercial standard that it thought would help them get more people to buy ready-made clothing, as opposed to clothes made at home or from a local dressmaker.
The Department of Commerce withdrew the commercial standard for the sizing of women's apparel in 1982, but many clothing manufacturers still use molds and designs made to fit women of the 1940s.
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