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How Nailing Plus Size Fit Could Help Retailers Turn Things Around

This year’s retail turmoil has prompted stores to hunt high and low for solutions to their falling foot traffic and sagging same-store sales. The conundrum has led them to reorg their merchandising teams, revamp their loyalty programs, rejigger their assortments and re-evaluate their e-commerce capabilities.

But despite all of these efforts to restore profitability, most continue to ignore one underserved yet growing demographic. Last year plus size was a $21.4 billion market—and could be even more significant if merchants would cater to it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 66 percent of American women are overweight. Meanwhile, The NPD Group Consumer Tracking Service reports the plus market represents 17 percent of women’s apparel sales.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that those numbers don’t add up.

So where are these women shopping? According to the Nadia Boujarwah, founder of Dia & Co, a subscription box that caters to plus-size women, they aren’t. She said women in this size range spend 20 cents for every dollar a straight size shopper spends. And no, it’s not because she just doesn’t care about fashion. It’s because she feels fashion doesn’t care about her, Boujarwah said.

“Most businesses are oriented around fulfilling demand,” Boujarwah told an audience at Shoptalk in March. “Dia is oriented around creating demand so we have to educate and inspire and bring her to the table in a way she hasn’t been before.”

Dia is just one of an array of new companies and brands attempting to serve this community. They, along with some traditional retailers, are starting to recognize the potential this market represents.

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Plus growth

“Plus size has started to get traction the last 10 years,” said Alice Rodrigues, senior consultant at fashion business consultancy Alvanon. The interest in the category has grown alongside the creep of the average women’s clothing size from a 12 to a 14 or 16 over the years, she said. “That and the dollar volume and rate of growth in that market has gotten people’s attention.”

Part of the challenge, Rodrigues said, is in how to market to this consumer without offending her. It’s a tightrope that has plunged more than one company into PR peril.

“From a marketing perspective, women who are plus don’t want to be set apart from other women. They don’t want to feel stigmatized because of their size,” she said. “We want to create clothes specifically for plus but the question is how do we communicate it’s for you and will fit while taking away that stigma of that plus delineator?”

Nordstrom is attempting to address this issue in a novel way for a department store, where plus has always had a separate assortment and section.

In October, the retailer made headlines with its plea for brands to “fill the gaps in sizing” from straight sizes, which typically only range from 2 or 4 to 12, and plus ranges, which run from 18 to 24. For holiday, shoppers will find extended sizes in about 40 brands, which the retailer anticipates will increase to 60 for Spring ’18.

It’s also integrating these collections—from petite to plus—together on the selling floor.

“Our customers have been asking for a broader range of sizes on both sides of the spectrum–the zeros and 2’s and beyond size 12,” Tricia Smith, Nordstrom executive vice president and general merchandise manager for designer, women’s and kids apparel, said at the time. “We recognize the opportunity to serve customers better by having more sizes.”

Similarly, Nordstrom-owned Trunk Club has stocked up on extended sizes in recognizable name brands and put a renewed emphasis on fit after learning that 46 percent of women—in all size ranges—find getting the right fit challenging.

“Each of our stylists goes through a rigorous three month training to understand how to best serve our customers in all size categories,” Tara Nesser, director of sales training at Trunk Club, said in a press release about the new offering.  “Additionally, they’re trained on cut variations by brand to understand how that relates to fit, style, body type and emerging trends for men and women.”

Other retailers now catering to this market include White House Black Market and Joe Fresh. Even designers known for high-end goods are working to get the industry to embrace plus sizes. Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung both have had collections at Lane Bryant, and Siriano also pioneered plus on Moda Operandi, which now offers up to a size 26.

But even with these efforts, there can still be a stigma around larger sizes in fashion. Siriano said, often, buyers aren’t interested in the same clothes and sizes he’s able to sell every day to his private customers.

In an interview with  Fashionista in June Gurung said, “Our industry is very, very slow at change, and fearful, we are operated by fear; there are a handful of people who operate with absolute courage and guts, but the majority of us, we don’t.”

Fit facts

The attitude Gurung describes flies in the face of consumers demand. In June, research firm Mintel released a report that found that approximately 40 percent of women want apparel in special sizes.

Further, the report said the demand is such that it could offer retailers a lifeline if they seize the opportunity.

But Rodrigues cautions that stores will only see these dividends if they create garments that actually flatter this consumer. If they nail fit, she said, the rewards could be substantial. “We know if we find something that fits us, we keep going back,” Rodrigues said. “People are still loyal to great fit.”

And great fit comes from really understanding your customer.

“Getting a good qualitative fit is tough for all sizes,” Rodrigues said. The challenge is that there are a lot of factors contributing to the body size and shape you’re dressing, including age and even geography, given that people in different regions have different sizes, heights and bone structures. These factors become multiplied when dressing plus consumers.

“A larger body has more curves in it and garments are made from flat patterns that have to be made around a 3-D figure, so the more curve and volume, the more challenging it is,” she said. “There are still a number of brands that think they can start from missy and grade their way into plus.”

[Read more about how brands are addressing fit: In Pursuit of the Suit: How Swimwear Brands Are Solving Fit Online]

Ultimately, Rodriguez said, it doesn’t work that way. “Bodies don’t grow in a linear way. When people become very large, the volume of the body isn’t supported by a skeleton so there are more variables. Ultimately the balance changes.”

Adding to the issues, the craft of patternmaking is getting lost, she said. And the size and shape of women in the U.S. is difficult for patternmakers overseas to understand.

It’s one reason why Rodrigues is looking forward to wider adoption of 3-D patternmaking. “It’s a valuable tool coming into play in all sizes. And it will help people overseas understand what that body looks like,” she said. “I have seen it used very effectively to test fits.”

Fit issues aren’t just the domain of plus women. Men who fall outside standard sizing also face issues. “The old misconception of big and tall being one and the same is beginning to dissolve. That’s one of the frustrations for big men,” Rodrigues said. “Now that plus is more of a topic in the industry, men are saying ‘What about us too?’”

And the industry is taking note. Collections like MVP Collections has recently launched to cater to guys sizes 1XL to 4XLT, while Winston Box is the male answer to Dia & Co.

Ultimately male and female shoppers have a lot in common. They often struggle with sizing and fit and would welcome tools and collections that make shopping easier.

“Shoppers want their clothing to be practical, they want them to fit and look good (which includes an opportunity for more special sizes),” the Mintel report concludes. “Retailers that can deliver on these basic needs will be those best positioned for future success.”