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Why Plus-Size Has Fashion Eating Its Words

Fashion retailers spend a lot of time talking about how important it is for them to know their customers. So why then are so few of them offering product that’s designed to fit and flatter a growing—and potentially lucrative—demographic?

For some brands and stores, that’s starting to change—inch by inch.

In recent weeks, both StitchFix and Fabletics have announced that they’re increasing their size ranges to include plus.

StitchFix, which provides shoppers with boxes of apparel based on AI algorithms, teamed up with prominent bloggers in the space for council and created a dedicated fit team to get ensure the product was on point.

“Like everyone, this woman wants to look and feel great! We’re excited to help her find the right, stylish product she loves,” Katrina Lake, the company’s founder and CEO, said in a statement. “With our Plus fit team and Curvy Style Council committed to ensuring consistency in fit and more than 200 specifically-trained plus stylists, Stitch Fix Plus will continue to revolutionize the shopping experience for women,”

Similarly, Fabletics, an online athleisure brand, took note of design elements like adjustable straps, garment lengths and waistbands for each style, which are otherwise basically the same as the product offered in standard sizes.

“Our mission is to support all women on their journey to live a healthy, active lifestyle,” co-founder Kate Hudson said in a statement.

The steps both companies took, and the care with which they enumerated them for the press, shows the complexity inherent in designing for curvier women. While these concerns could explain why brands are often either late or absent from the plus market, what doesn’t compute is the missed revenue.

The NPD Group reported that plus generated $21.4 billion dollars in 2016.

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That 6 percent growth from the previous year might explain why Eloquii opened a shop in Washington, D.C., Torrid is expanding its sizes and number of locations, and Ashley Stewart recently rolled out a new concept store.

But these are all retailers that focus on this consumer. The reality is plus has traditionally given mainstream brick-and-mortar stores angst–which they then pass onto their plus-sized shoppers.

Experience? What experience?

In stores, plus is typically buried a small section in the back or some other out of the way locale. Far from celebrated, it’s treated like an afterthought, or worse.

With all of the talk about offering consumer elevated experiences with the hopes of luring her back into stores, one would think there’d be more thought given to a category with so much potential. Instead, shoppers report looking for clothes in brick-and-mortar stores is often a demoralizing experience.

That’s according to a survey conducted by Kathryn Anthony, author of the book Defined by Design. While the sample size for Anthony’s poll on the subject was admittedly small (only 80 respondents), it reflects many of the gripes that plus-size women (and men) have had for years.

Only 14 percent said that stores typically feature images that look like them. Most felt some level of discomfort shopping in mainstream stores, with only 26 percent indicating that it’s a comfortable experience for them. And, only 10 percent would describe their time in the store as “agreeable.”

When Anthony took her own fact-finding trip to the mall, she found aisles that were too tight, a conspicuous lack of mannequins and nearly no mirrors in the areas designated for larger sizes.

One person who was surveyed, and quoted in Anthony’s Fast Company article, encapsulated what many feel is the not-so-subtle messaging: “Make the plus-size section more roomy, attractive, near the entrance of your store! Forcing fat people to retreat to the rear of a store speaks volumes: Store owners don’t want to wait on fat people!”

By the numbers

In short, shopping for plus leaves much to be desired. And retailers are paying the price.

Speaking at last month’s ShopTalk retail conference, Nadia Boujarwah, co-founder and CEO of Dia & Co, a subscription-based apparel company for extended sizes, said women in this size range spend 20 cents on the dollar compared to those who wear standard sizes. At a time when stores are counting their pennies, that’s a lot of lost revenue.

And for those who think that larger women just don’t care about fashion, they need only to look to the juniors department. While purchasing in this category has slowed the percentage of shoppers buying plus has almost doubled to 34 percent, up from 19 percent in 2012, according to an NPD report. The impetus? More fashionable offerings.

So if you build it, they will come?

If that’s true, the category—which has experienced a 17 percent growth in sales in the last three years, according to IBSWorld—could be much more lucrative. That pace means obese people have increased their spending on clothes faster than those in standard sizing, according to Fashionbi’s The Plus Size Fashion Phenomena report.

Then why is retail still so slow to embrace these sizes? Could it be that merchants need a little lesson in statistics?

Today, the average woman in the U.S. is 63.8 inches tall and weighs 166.2 pounds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In fact, the Centers for Disease control reports the average adult woman today weighs as much as an adult man in the 60s.

A study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education found that the average size in the U.S. is between a 16 and 18.

“We hope that the apparel industry can see the numbers and know that these women aren’t going away, they aren’t going to disappear, and they deserve to have clothing,” one of the study’s lead experts, Susan Dunn, told the Today show via email.

Instead, they’re ceding that customer—practically foisting her—on Walmart, the nation’s plus-size leader.

With fewer options, the industry is actually training plus-size women not to buy. “Most businesses are oriented around fulfilling demand,” Boujarwah of Dia & Co said. “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.”