Retailers Can’t Ignore 100 Million Plus-Size American Women Forever

plus size models

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We all know, understand and have opinions on one simple fact: America’s getting bigger.   Regardless of the passion or rage or ambivalence directed toward this reality, it is simply that: a reality.To whit, the “average” American women now wears a size 14 (with “plus-sizes, often classified as 14 to 34, account(ing) for 67 per cent of the population) a number that typically hits the ceiling size charts of most American-distributed stores and brands.  Even more importantly, outside of plus-size retail giants Lane Bryant (which offers few rave reviews and fewer stylish options to its clientele) and the eternally-tasteless Hot Topic, those “regular-sized” stores and brands that do offer a depressingly slim host of fashionable options to this majority of Americans, do so almost begrudgingly and with little focus on what, specifically, this segment of women want, instead acting like whatever is on the shelves is good enough for the consumer, regardless of her needs or wants or concerns.

Why is this? Why is it that as American women’s tastes and “must-haves” and needs shift, retailers refuse to accommodate this growing apparel segment (that now totals close to $18B of a $108B apparel industry)? 

  • Difficult Fit: No two bodies are equal or identical or demand the same fit and figure.  This fact is even more important when considering and working with the plus-size silhouette. Evidence suggests that as a woman’s body grows and evolves into the plus-size category, what curves she had “before” become more exaggerated, presenting a “design” challenge for most major retailers/designers accustomed to working with product for a specific body shape. Consequently, retailers deal with this particular challenge by simply “making bigger” clothes (based on the “normal-sized” model) that in turn bunch and pinch and otherwise don’t flatter the variety of plus-size silhouettes.
  • Customer behaviour: In truth, most retailers are lazy when it comes to catering to the plus-size segment.  This consumer base has essentially been trained to “make do” with limited options, resulting in plus-sized women purchasing less clothing while (over) relying upon shoes, purses, and accessories to flatter and compensate for limited, flattering options. Consequently, retailers end up experiencing lower inventory turns on (a poor selection of) plus-size product, which in turn discourages investment in creative and innovative plus-size fashion.  It’s an ugly slow product-turn cycle that will, ultimately, be forced to shift, due to market pressures.
  • Snobbery: Let’s be honest: the fashion/retail market is a snobby and exclusionary one, a reality you see reflected in the disparate supply-and-demand of plus-size fashion. After all, it’s no secret the fashion world can be arrogant and prohibitive, most certainly not always welcoming to plus-size designers and “non-traditional” (though now the majority of) customers. Few designers wish or want to deviate from designing for sizes 2-8, for both aesthetic and personal reasons, while those who design and source for larger stores (i.e. Sears, Kohl’s and JC Penney), tend to follow “traditional” rules when it comes to pushing plus-size product. Consequently, a retail ecosystem has developed in which these brands and designers create “normal”-sized clothing, off which they then (often begrudgingly) create a few plus-size items.  The fashion world’s refusal to acknowledge this important and growing consumer segment potentially means billions of dollars are potentially being left on the retail table.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the plus-size “clothing debate” is how accurately it reflects America’s ambivalence and attitudes toward size and weight and considerations of beauty.  Regardless of these issues, however, the plus-size fashion industry is an increasingly growing and important one that cannot, and will not, continue to be ignored.

Margaret Bogenrief is a partner with ACM Partners, a boutique crisis management and distressed investing firm serving companies and municipalities in financial distress.  She can be reached at [email protected]