Recent articles in both trade and general business media have described the plus-size consumer segment as misunderstood and underserved. But the tide is rapidly turning. Apparel brands know they can win by providing on-trend, great-fitting fashion to these shoppers whose shapes are increasingly more the norm than the exception, and sourcing executives will play an essential role in this evolution.
From niche to mainstream
“Plus-size” has become an irrelevant term for some leading women’s wear manufacturers and retailers. Innovative companies, including many of the market’s top name brands, have worked to break down barriers between their “straight sizing” and their plus-size fit parameters. They recognize that it does not make sense to compartmentalize and limit their product offerings for shoppers who make up 40-60 percent of the U.S. population.
The ability to successfully source high-quality, fashion-forward, plus-size merchandise is a competitive advantage. Take the phenomenal rise of Ascena Retail Group Inc., which became one of the apparel industry’s largest companies, with sales of $7.3 billion, following its purchase of Ann Inc. last month. A major factor in Ascena’s growth has been its ability to produce and fulfill fashion for the plus-size sector. As The Wall Street Journal reported, Ascena “handles back-end operations like sourcing and distribution for a growing stable of brands,” and the company has “focused on chains in underserved but growing markets such as plus sizes.”
New businesses are starting up and others are expanding to better serve this market. Online plus-size fashion purveyor Navabi has reportedly tripled its revenues annually since its 2009 launch and now sells products in 30 countries, and Eloquii, another online firm targeting the plus-size market, told Business of Fashion (BoF) it expects to exceed $20 million in sales this year.
All of this activity presents sourcing professionals with an opportunity to do what they do best—finding the right factories to cost-effectively and quickly produce fashions that meet the new mold.
Staying one step ahead
Sourcing executives and their product development counterparts are at the center of the action when it comes to satisfying plus-size consumers’ needs. Responsible for translating the designer’s vision into reality as they always have been, these teams are under greater pressure than ever to develop, specify and source trend-right fashion guaranteed to have greater appeal to larger women.
For example, the most progressive companies embrace a cross-functional, comprehensive approach to improving their fit. Realizing it is both a commercial and technical issue, they put an emphasis on re-engineering their styles and sizes to suit the individuals who want to buy their products. Today, that includes a lot more consumers who do not fit the standard size 0-14 spectrum. Industry advisers like Alvanon can help them take an integrated, data-driven approach to evaluating their brand positioning, fit, quality and cost.
David’s Bridal took this approach when it brought in Alvanon to body scan customers in 38 U.S. cities. The company wanted to better serve all customers—but especially plus-size women—by offering more dresses that fit right from the first try-on. The strategic project gave David’s Bridal a wealth of actionable data, which the company used to develop customized fit standards. It implemented the standards, in conjunction with new processes and tools, across its supply chain, ultimately improving customer satisfaction and decreasing the need for extensive dress alterations.
While each brand must forge its own unique fit and style strategy, fashion businesses can benchmark themselves against global best practices and worldwide body measurement data. Consider that some companies are updating their pattern block libraries on an annual basis, making changes in response to evolving consumer fit trends and body data. This presents a recurring chance to respond to what sizes, fits and styles are being well received at retail by plus-size consumers. From a sourcing perspective, these companies need production partners who can keep up with the pace of change. They also need suppliers who understand the advantages of a non-linear grading approach.
Industry consultants with fit technology can provide vendor and factory training to support corporate sizing strategies. They can collaborate with sourcing teams and their factory partners to ensure everyone is aligned on the “why” and “how” of fit initiatives—the business drivers and the tactical process changes. As with any major global sourcing project, all of this must be communicated and managed in ways that transcend cultural and geographic boundaries.
As for benchmarks, there are new best practices for cycle time reduction, a key metric for many sourcing leaders.
Particularly during the fit phase, there have been major gains in speed to market. Specifically, some leading fashion brands are taking advantage of virtual, 3-D fitting technology to reduce physical sampling rounds. At the U.K. conference “The Fit Factor,” Tesco technical director Alan Wragg shared how Tesco’s F&F retail chain relied on 3-D visualization technology to re-grade its school uniform product line. The company verified all new grade rules on screen, without making a single sample. Within six weeks, 27 styles were fit approved against the new base sizes, and all patterns were fully graded. Online returns dropped 5 percent following this strategic fit initiative, saving the company ?750,000 ($1.2 million) for every 1 percent of the returns decline. Thanks to the 3-D sampling, Tesco also reduced school uniform lead times by one to two weeks, equating to net margin increases of 4-8 percent.
Tesco’s F&F school uniform success story is just one example of how a smart fit strategy can yield real dividends. As fashion businesses determine how they can better serve the plus-size shopper, they can benefit from some of the same best practices. Well-informed sourcing professionals will surely be part of the solution.
Ed Gribbin is president of Alvanon Inc., a consulting and technology firm serving the global apparel industry. Since 2001, Alvanon has leveraged data-driven knowledge to equip leading fashion retailers, brands, designers and manufacturers with world-class growth, customer satisfaction, product development and supply chain strategies. Gribbin can be reached at 212-868-4318 or firstname.lastname@example.org.