The rise of inclusive sizing across the fashion sector has been slow-going, yet steady, especially in recent seasons. From boutique brands to household names, retail has been extending its size ranges to meet the needs of a significant contingent of consumers who have long been underserved. And the market for plus-size clothing is expected to reach $696 billion by 2026, up from roughly $481 billion in 2019, according to Allied Market Research.
It came, therefore, as a shock to plus-size shoppers when popular work-to-weekend womenswear label Loft admitted last month that it had pulled the plug on its line of plus-sized apparel, just three years after its debut.
On March 14, a number of Instagram commenters began peppering a Loft promotional post with queries about the status of the plus-size collection, after seeing the number of available styles dwindle across the brand’s site and stores. Loft responded in kind to dozens of comments, saying, “Due to continued business challenges brought on by Covid-19, we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions, which will affect our plus collection.”
While the brand will continue to offer a selection of new product up to size 26 throughout the spring and early summer, it added, come fall, the range will contract to include just sizes 00-18/XXS-XXL. The company concluded by apologizing for “any disappointment” the decision may cause.
The severing of plus sizes has become the most prominent topic of conversation on the brand’s Instagram feed since the announcement, suggesting that Loft and its owner, Sycamore Partners—which bought it along with Ann Taylor, Lou & Grey and Lane Bryant from bankrupt Ascena on Thanksgiving for $540 million—underestimated the decision’s impact on the brand’s plus-size consumer base. While the company had seemingly hoped to phase out the range without much fanfare, shoppers are continuing to voice their opinions in digital droves.
“It’s always interesting to me when brands make these supposed ‘cost saving decisions’ but focus solely on cutting back plus sizes as the solution,” plus-size lifestyle blogger and influencer Nicolette Mason commented on a Loft Instagram post. “Why not scale back the amount of inventory across stores? Scale back the volume of deliveries? Have fewer SKUs per product cycle?” she queried. “Instead, you’re communicating that you don’t actually value the plus size customers you’ve tried to cultivate over the past 3 years.”
“Wondering why @Loft is no longer going to be selling plus size clothes when 68% of women wear a size 14 or higher??” Instagram user @kerri39538 wrote in response to a post featuring a photo of spring-ready white jeans and a gingham top. “And don’t come back with the ‘Covid made it hard’ answer,” she added. “No one believes it.”
The decision to axe plus sizes is a curious one in light of the current cultural zeitgeist. Marginalized groups across the board are calling for inclusivity with heightened fervor, and shoppers are increasingly voting with their wallets. According to McKinsey data, more than three-quarters of Americans have changed their shopping patterns since the pandemic began, and about 40 percent of young consumers are inspired to transition to brands that match their values. Each credit card swipe or online transaction represents a ballot cast in favor of the issues they find compelling, not just as shoppers, but as people.
According to Edited market analyst Kayla Marci, the story of the Loft plus-size line’s demise may be in the numbers. While new plus-size arrivals saw a 33-percent spike in sell outs over the past year, that increase is likely due to the company’s practice of placing “heavy markdowns” on these products, perhaps in an attempt to move them more quickly.
“From the start of 2021, the average advertised discount of plus products soared,” she said, adding that currently, 62 percent of Loft’s remaining plus-size products are on sale at an average discount of 45 percent. This represents a “more aggressive strategy” than the one the brand employed during the same period in 2020, wherein just 44 percent of plus-size stock was discounted at an average rate of 37-percent off the MSRP.
In comparing products that arrived on the brand’s site over the course of the past year to new products available on Loft.com from the year prior, Edited’s data revealed that “rapid online sell outs at a stable price point, untarnished by discounts” remain “most dominant in products skewed towards smaller sizes,” Marci said. “In 2020 and 2021, products available in sizes XS and S make up the largest portion of sell outs,” she added.
That trend has shifted slightly year over year, though, with XS and S making up 16 percent of immediate sell outs in 2021, as opposed to 17 percent during the same period a year prior. “Sell outs in sizes M and L have grown,” she added, with each size amounting to 15 percent of sell outs this spring compared to 12 percent throughout the same period of 2020.
Notably, sell outs of products in sizes XL and XXL have contracted over the past year, from 15 percent to 14 percent and 12 percent to 10 percent, respectively. While Sycamore Partners declined to comment on the reason behind the suspension of Loft’s plus-size line, and whether flagging sales in the brand’s larger sizes played a role, it appears that “Loft is poised to clear stock ahead of the discontinuation” with its latest round of aggressive discounts, Marci said.
Myriad brands and retailers have been adversely affected by the Covid crisis—and for many, those challenges have proven insurmountable. Online plus-size retailer Dia & Co’s State of Inclusive Fashion Report, released this spring, revealed that over 30 percent of plus-size specialty stores permanently closed their doors during the last three quarters of 2020. That number jumps to 40 percent when the timeline is pulled back to fall of 2019, when rumblings of the coronavirus first reached American shores.
“We expect this reduction in store footprint to be permanent,” it wrote, adding that like most other retail categories, the brick-and-mortar shrinkage will likely lead to an accelerated shift online.
Dia & Co’s data also showed that spending by plus-size shoppers on items like denim, dresses and suiting has declined due to the widespread lifestyle shift among consumers. Shoppers have spent more time working remotely, leading to a 50-percent jump in loungewear and legging sales, and getting back to nature for socially distant reprieves, leading to 30-percent growth in outerwear sales year over year from Q4 of 2019.
Many retailers couldn’t keep up with these changing tides amid supply chain standstills and trouble shipping product from overseas, causing them to miss the sales they needed to survive.
“With a smaller base of retail options to begin with, the plus-size market, serving 67 percent of women in America, has been particularly hard hit,” Dia & Co founder Nadia Boujarwah wrote, calling the resulting landscape for plus-size shoppers a “retail desert.”
“The category has permanently changed,” she added. “Some of the largest names in specialty-plus retail have gone bankrupt, and independent brick-and-mortar stores are closing in droves,” Boujarwah said.
Nonetheless, inclusive fashion represented a $100 billion opportunity for fashion brands at the outset of the pandemic, Dia & Co’s data showed, and Boujarwah believes that number is even larger amid the culling of competition that has taken place over the past year. “With pent up demand and fewer options, there is great opportunity for retailers to serve this customer,” she said.