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Body and Image: The Challenge of Plus Size

Americans are bigger than ever, but in a society that prizes svelte images, many manufacturers and retailers are reluctant to target those consumers.

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

The Plus-Size apparel category gets little respect.

Americans are bigger than ever, but in a society that prizes svelte, athletic images, many manufacturers and retailers are reluctant to embrace and target those consumers, because of the stigma that large sizes still carry.

This story first appeared in the January 21, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Models keep getting thinner and thinner as the population gets heavier and heavier….Overweight people in America don’t want to be addressed as if there was something wrong with them,” said David Wolfe, creative director, The Doneger Group. “When I shop, I see people in regular departments I think could and should be shopping in plus-size departments.”

However, those departments are often positioned in basements or hard-to-find store nooks that get little attention instead of being mixed and promoted with other categories “to let size-20 women feel extra good about being size 20,” he said.

Even the most powerful woman in media isn’t immune from body-image anxiety. Oprah Winfrey wrote in the January issue of her magazine about gaining 40 pounds in four years, admitting, in headline-size type, “I’m mad at myself. I’m embarrassed.”

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Yes, size matters, but the ramifications of plus-size marketing decisions go beyond self-image to the bottom line.

Industry analysts said merchants and brands that give short shrift to the category are missing an opportunity to jump-start sales in a critical period of retail weakness and diminished demand.

“If I was opening a business today, I’d go after the large-size customer before any other customer,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for research firm NPD Group. “It offers the most growth opportunity in all of fashion.”

Statistics are on Cohen’s side.

Studies show 62 percent of females and 67 percent of males in the U.S., or about 127 million people, are overweight, which is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9. (BMI is a calculation involving a person’s weight and height, and is a not gender-specific guide to standards of weight and obesity.)

Despite consumer weight gain, marketing and advertising of plus sizes has gone “under the radar,” according to a 2008 survey of 1,020 women by research consultant Mintel International Group Ltd., which found the most frequently worn women’s size is now 14.

Retail sales of large-size apparel to women were more than $18 billion from October 2007 to November 2008, compared with $19.3 billion in the previous year, according to the NPD Group. Men’s big-and-tall retail sales in the period in 2008 were $4.8 billion, compared with $5.1 billion in 2007.

Wendy Liebman, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail said the category “might attract significant business, but they [brands] don’t deem it ‘sexy’ or ‘appropriate.’ ”

Part of the problem is the short attention spans of companies and the desire for fast results.

“Just because a firm decided to get into the plus-size business didn’t mean consumers knew that,” Cohen said. “It takes time for that message to get out, and they weren’t patient because everything is viewed as having such precious floor space.”

As a result, competition withered for pure plus and big-size businesses like Casual Male and Lane Bryant, creating opportunity for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which became a major retailer of plus sizes, Cohen said.

“With the exception of Lane Bryant, nobody’s ever put enough emphasis on catering to plus-size women,” he said. “It’s never found a home in the front and center.”

To be sure, some brands and retailers have challenged the norm.

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004, took aim at beauty stereotypes by using real women with representative bodies, rather than models, in an effort to redefine body shapes.

“Consumers want to see people more like themselves — flawed, diverse, inspiring, beautiful and real — on billboards, on TV and in magazines,” said Kathy O’Brien, Dove marketing director.

Vanity sizing and ego make plus sizes tricky for marketers. “When a woman sees herself in the mirror, despite her size, she still thinks Angelina Jolie, not Jennifer Hudson,” said retail consultant Emanuel Weintraub, ceo of Emanuel Weintraub Associates Inc.

The power of image is so strong some brands purposely grade sizes inaccurately, masquerading them as smaller to enhance their appeal to consumers, he added.

Plus-size model Emme, one of the first major full-figure fashion personalities and a market consultant to Vanguard, a division of Goldman Sachs, said: “The lack of sparkle and attention in this area is a complete affront to the marketing power this client packs….When are retailers and manufacturers going to snap out of being narrow-minded and unable to see the enormous opportunity right under their noses? If they give a customer what she needs, wants and desires, she will be loyal for life.”

The market continues to narrow, partly because of industry financial woes. Sales at plus-size specialty leader Charming Shoppes’ three major chains (Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Catherine’s) had same-store sales decreases of about 10 percent since mid-2007, Mintel reported.

The market is divided by several manufacturers and retailers, with no single source holding a dominant position, and merchandise selling in plus-size specialty stores, plus-size departments in mass merchants and department stores and plus-size Web sites, according to the Mintel study.

Most competition is in the middle market, with chains such as Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Avenue offering prices in the midtier range, and national retailers like Kohl’s and J.C. Penney having developed their own plus-size businesses, Mintel said. Wal-Mart dominates the lower-priced market, with competition thinning at higher-priced levels.

Possibly because of the privacy they offer shoppers, online retailers represent an opportunity to raise the plus-size profile: Besides Web-only businesses like Redcats USA’s Woman Within and Jessica London, almost every major retailer and brand sells plus-size apparel online, often offering a wider assortment than they do in stores, Mintel said.

Among conventional retailers, at Lord & Taylor, plus-size sales represent 22 percent of the ladies’ sportswear business, said LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of public relations. E-commerce in the category has become more important to Lord & Taylor, which sells plus sizes to consumers on the Internet and also sends e-mail blasts on new vendors, seasonal trends, special offers and special events. Online, Lord & Taylor keeps special sizes in their own category, with their own classifications (tops, bottoms, dresses, swim, etc.) and does not populate them in with missy. In the stores, the presentation is by vendor, merchandised with mixed classifications for visual impact and customer ease, she noted.

The retailer has “been working to increase fashion offerings for our plus-size customer, and we are always looking for new opportunities to grow this business,” Olexa said.

L&T plans to roll out plus-size offerings to an unspecified number of additional doors for spring 2009, including Modern Branded Separates, Karen Kane and Calvin Klein, and intensifying the Lauren Jeans business in all its doors.

The plus-size business also is an important part of the Kmart assortment, both in-store and online, said Stephen Donnelly, vice president, GMM, women’s apparel.

Kmart carries plus-size private labels such as Route 66 and Jaclyn Smith, as well as national brands Chic and Rider in plus sizes. It offers plus sizes in categories such as swim, outerwear, sleep/lounge and intimates, and carries junior-plus in its Piper & Blue brand as well, he said.

The women’s plus-size department is a growth initiative for Kohl’s and carries a balance of core essentials, fashion basics and trend items to satisfy women’s needs and budgets, said Jack Boyle, executive vice president, GMM of women’s apparel and accessories. Although Kohl’s did not disclose sales figures, it has expanded brands in the plus-size department, will continue to add new labels as opportunities arise, and plans to launch Dana Buchman brand plus sizes in fall 2009.

And yet, many brands stop short of entering the category because they believe it could alienate regular-size customers, said Bill D’Arienzo, ceo of WDA Brand Marketing Solutions.

“It’s frightening they would do this, but they do, and it’s a terrible thing with so many people overweight,” he said.

To break barriers, brands must make sizing more “consumer-centric,” with sexy, appealing advertisements, D’Arienzo said. “Inside every woman, despite her size, is a longing to be recognized for her femininity.”

Wolfe of the Doneger Group focused the issue on basic business practicalities.

“If the retail market was booming, I could understand people saying they’re going to forget the plus-size business,” he said. “But everybody today needs business, and to be ignoring a large segment of the population seems absolutely foolhardy.”