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Most of the Apparel Industry is Missing Out on a $20 Billion Opportunity

Apparel brands and retailers blaming all their woes on the so-called race to the bottom and consumers’ penny-pinching ways should stop and ask themselves if they’re truly catering to the public. After all, how can shoppers be at fault for not wanting to buy clothes that don’t fit?

Try this stat on for size: The average American woman now wears between a size 14 and 34, according to Plunkett Research, which put paid to the long-held belief that she wears a size 14. Don’t believe it? NPD Group said annual sales of women’s plus-size apparel—that’s size 14 and higher—is up 17 percent to $20.4 billion this year. And that growth has outpaced overall apparel sales.

In fact, nearly twice as many American girls ages 13 to 17 are buying plus-size clothing today compared with 2012, NPD discovered, and while that’s partly to do with the growing number of overweight teenagers, it’s also down to the fact that plus-size offerings have improved, albeit slightly.

“Teens are reinvigorating the plus-size market,” Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst, said earlier this year. “Today’s young consumers know what they want and won’t settle for less. This energy will turn up the volume at retail for the plus-size apparel market overall, which is important but sometimes overlooked.”

And the apparel industry has a long way to go until these consumers feel represented at retail.

Plus-size teens want more options

For its 2015 Women’s Special Size Study, NPD discovered that of all age groups, teens are more likely to feel that “brands design plus-size clothing as an afterthought” and “plus-size clothing should be offered in the same styles available for my smaller friends.”

Don Howard, executive director at fit expert Alvanon, said there’s a simple reason why brands are slow to move into the plus-size arena.

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“Even though great strides have been made over the last several years about destigmatizing the notion of plus-size clothing, there are some brands that still don’t see themselves in that space,” he said, noting that a lot of technical expertise about size and shape goes into creating those products. “It’s not something that you want to enter lightly.”

Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail analyst at Edited, shared that sentiment.

“A great deal of market research has to be done in order to understand the competitive landscape and to know where the gaps in product and price are,” she said. “When a retailer adds a lingerie or activewear line, it’s probably targeting their existing shopper, and there’s an understanding around fit. With a plus-size offering, often it’s a new customer and that can be daunting.”

Cost holds brands back

Feriel Karoui, strategic planner at Parisian trend forecaster PromoStyl, pointed to the added expense as another reason.

“Especially for small labels or brands with few means, the more size options the brand will propose, the more expensive it will be for them: development and adaptation of the prototype, fabric purchase, manufacture, stocks, merchandising,” she explained. “People have a tendency to blame the brands for not covering all the plus-size market, but actually, most of them make the choice to concentrate on the most bankable choices [regular sizes] because they don’t have enough funds to develop that large of a range.”

It’s not just about adding sizes

Howard made another good point: “Plus-size product that is created correctly is not simply extended off the regular Missy size range [of 2 to 16]. People make this mistake all the time,” he said. “It’s not just adding sizes. You have to understand the size and shape of that person’s body.”

That being said, consumers are more trend-hungry than ever, meaning there’s a lot of opportunity for flattering, trend-led fashion for larger women. Smith said the retailers that Edited works with are looking to make trendy fast fashion for millennials, flattering and functional activewear and plus-size menswear—a market that has been completely underserved and lacks fashion direction.

“Plus is unfortunately limited to a handful of retailers that only do plus, or it’s a hidden section inside department stores,” said Melissa Moylan, creative director at trend forecaster Fashion Snoops. “That needs to change.”

Ask the consumer what she wants

One retailer that’s been getting it right, according to Howard, is Torrid, a California-based plus-size specialist catering to sizes 10 to 30.

Torrid Fall 2016 denim campaign

“I think everybody has Torrid on their radar—they’re doing a great job,” Howard said. “If I’m a plus-size customer and I go to that website, not only do I feel welcomed, I feel excited about all the product that I can wear.”

Kate Horton, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Torrid, said everything the company does is for its customer.

“She’s our primary source of information. Whether through social media, email, comment cards at stores or letters sent to HQ, she’s constantly providing us feedback and we respond to her in kind,” she said. “Our customer seeks us out for the latest fashion in her sizes, from head to toe. Torrid is her destination for anything and everything, from great fitting denim, stylish tops and sexy dresses, to shoes, accessories, lingerie and swimwear. We don’t just guess—we know what our girls want to wear and deliver it to them, beautifully made.”

Take Torrid’s jeans, for example. Each pair is fit on multiple women, not just a fit model, with employees, customers and friends trying on and wear-testing all new styles.

“We listen to their feedback and make corrections based on what looks best,” Horton said. “This is what really sets Torrid apart—most of the fashion industry still relies solely on fit models whose shapes don’t represent real American women. So, we really meant it when we say everything at Torrid is done with our customer in mind; it’s always about her.”

Plus-size offerings are marked down less than regular sizes

Full Beauty, an online marketplace selling womenswear in sizes 12 to 44, is another one to watch. Smith delved into Edited data and discovered that Full Beauty currently sells more than 29,000 products.

“Then there are retailers who cater for all sizes, including plus size, such as Forever 21 with their Forever 21+ line and Asos with Asos Curve. These are great for the consumer who doesn’t want to feel like they have to shop at a specialty retailer—they can shop in the same place their friends do, for the same trends,” Smith said.

While Forever21+ only makes up about 6 percent of the retailer’s entire offering, it has fractionally less discounting than the main line and a median price point that’s 14 percent higher than the regular offering. Furthermore, 17 percent of Forever 21+ products are replenished, compared to 12 percent of the main line.

Similarly, Asos Curve has less discounting than the e-tailer’s other lines—54 percent of products are currently reduced, compared to 67 percent of the main women’s offering—and a higher replenishment rate. But while Asos has more items in its Curve collection than in Tall, Petite or Maternity, its median price point is 17 percent lower than the regular-sized offering.

Boutique Plus
Project Runway’s Ashley Nell Tipton will design a capsule collection for J.C. Penney’s Boutique+ for fall and holiday

Big-box retail is slowly embracing bigger sizes

It’s not just fast fashion or specialty retailers that are paying more attention to the plus-sized woman. Earlier this year, J.C. Penney introduced Boutique+, a private brand designed for full-figured women and priced from $12.99 to $39.99. In addition to launching the line, the retailer debuted an in-store concept in nearly 200 locations nationwide called The Boutique, featuring an assortment of clothes in sizes 30W to 5X.

“There are millions of incredibly stylish, full-figured women who are seeking comfortable, well-fit clothes that offer style and versatility,” Siiri Dougherty, senior vice president of women’s apparel, said in a press release announcing the launch. “J.C. Penney is committed to winning her loyalty by designing an entirely new modern brand made just for her and creating a dedicated shopping environment that respects her time and budget with a greater selection of affordable plus-size fashion that takes into account diverse body types.”

J.C. Penney’s line came a year after Ava & Viv, Target’s in-house plus-size apparel brand, retailing from $10 to $79.99. In addition, when the retailer’s recurring collaboration with Who What Wear launched last January, sizes ranged from 2 to 26.

One popular apparel brand that seems to be staying away from extended size ranges, however, is athleisure leader Lululemon. It only offers women’s sizes up to 12. By comparison, Gap’s Athleta offers a wide range, from petite to plus. Meanwhile, Nike—which shared a photo of a plus-size athlete on its Instagram earlier this summer—does offer sports bras designed for larger cup sizes, but most of its pants only go up to size 18 and just three styles are offered in 3XL.

The reality is that more than one-third of all American women (40 percent) are overweight, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and retailers that cater to the USA’s changing shape will flourish.

But as Smith pointed out: “It’s important to remember that there are many types of plus-size consumers,” she said. “Increased understanding in retail that ‘plus size’ doesn’t fit all will help this market grow.”