PURSUING A FASHION CUSTOMER

Byline: Anne D'InnocenzioWith contributions from Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall, Chicago

NEW YORK--With sportswear business in the doldrums, moderate-price firms are aggressively going after the fast-growing category of special sizes.
"Anybody who wasn't in special sizes is getting into it now; those already in it are expanding and fine-tuning the way they do business," said Elaine Wally, a principal at the Doneger Buying Connection, which buys plus-size apparel for the chains.
Wally said the biggest growth has been in the relatively new plus-size petite category. Plus-size petites sounds like an oxymoron, but it refers to women who are shorter than 5 feet 4 inches and who wear sizes 18 to 24.
The special-size business is "gigantic," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Barnard Retail Marketing Report.
"The momentum is there, and it is accelerating," he said.
"The special-size category is holding up in the face of weak apparel sales," said Jay Levtow, president of Counterparts, a moderate-price fashion bottoms firm, whose special-size apparel accounts for 25 percent of his firm's volume. "Department stores are giving it better signage and real estate, and while these consumers are price conscious, they'll buy something if it fits."
To keep up with demands from retailers and consumers, moderate-price apparel firms are doing the following:
Going after the large-size petite area, which had been generally ignored by department stores until about a year ago.
Delivering special size goods at the same time as misses' apparel.
Better tailoring their apparel for petite and plus-size customers.
Updating their plus-size line to make it more fashion-forward, aiming it toward a younger customer. Much of the fashion is now being taken from the junior market.
While special-size departments in the designer, bridge and better areas have been strong, the growth has been particularly dramatic in the moderate zone, an area that department stores are aggressively beefing up. That is a boon to moderate apparel firms. Industry observers note that in the past many of these firms were afraid of expanding into special sizes because they feared it would cut into their misses' sales. Now, they are developing their special size business.
According to the NPD Group, a research firm, sales of plus-size apparel at department stores grew to $3 billion, or 18 percent of women's apparel sales, in 1993 from $2.8 billion, or 17.6 percent, in 1992. In 1991, the plus-size category accounted for $2.5 billion, or 16.2 percent of sales.
Petite apparel reached $1.3 billion or 7.7 percent of sales in 1993 compared with $1.2 billion or 7.6 percent of sales in 1992. In 1991, petite apparel sales accounted for $1.16 billion, or 7.3 percent.At the discount level, it's another story. While industry observers point out that Cato Corp., Kmart, Wal-Mart and Caldor are beginning to fund special size departments, the category has not been a high priority at the mass level. Industry sources reason that mass retailers have not aggressively merchandised the category because they simply don't know where on the selling floorto put it.
"Department stores are aggressively going after the special-size category but for the mass chains, it is something that is still being considered," said Michael Kipperman, chief executive officer at Gotham Apparel, which sells plus-size and misses' clothing to both mass and department store chains.
At the department store level, industry observers say stores are going after the petite category, which is growing faster than the plus-size business. Moderate manufacturers began developing the petite business after building the plus-size category.
Sears, Roebuck and Macy's are now homing in on the petite category. At Sears, initiatives are paying off with "significant double-digit" increases, according to a spokeswoman. She said that by the end of this year the chain would have added petites departments in 145 Sears stores, bringing the total to 483. The chain plans to continue expanding at that pace. The Sears spokeswoman also noted that in remodeled stores, the amount of space being devoted to petites was increasing by varying percentages, according to the stores. Large-size business is also growing by a double-digit percentage at Sears, the spokeswoman said. Special sizes are already carried in all Sears stores that carry apparel, she noted.At Macy's Herald Square unit, the petites department last year was relocated on the same floor as the plus-size department. "The petite area was a bit cramped," said Joyce Henry, vice president and administrator for special sizes at Macy."We needed to give it more space to develop the business."
While Henry noted that petites is growing at a faster rate than the large-size area, she emphasized that the chain is developing both businesses, making a big push for spring.
"We are realizing that by funding it and positioning it right we can create a whole new level of business," she said. As part of the strategy to develop the special-size business, the chain is going after the large-size petite customer.
Many apparel makers are heeding the call.
"We received a lot of requests from major chains to offer large-size petites," said Norty Sperling, president of Norton McNaughton, which makes special-size apparel under the labels McNaughton Petites and Maggie McNaughton, its plus-size label.
Sperling added that large-size petites represent 10 percent of its special-size department and expects it to increase dramatically over the next few years.
Overall, the special-size category has doubled over the past three years. This year, it will represent half the company's sales of $180 million. San Francisco-based Koret of California also went into large-size petites about a year ago and company officials expect it to garner about 15 percent of special-size sales within two years.
Fred Smeyne, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Koret, said that the special-size category, which now makes up 40 percent of the firm's sales, has been growing at double-digit increases for the past six years, with petites outpacing plus sizes.
Manufacturers are also better tailoring their clothes to suit the special-size customer, as well as making sure that the goods are delivered at the same time as the misses' collection. "Stores are demanding that special-size goods are delivered on time," said Laura Robertson, sales manager for large-size women at Notations, a moderate-price blouse firm here.
For the past six months, Notations has been working to deliver the goods at the same time as its misses' collection. Robertson added that for petite blouses, the firm has tailored its prints to suit the petite customer.
Fashion, however, is becoming more important, especially in the large-size market, which had largely been subjected todowdy clothes. Many say that the biggest change is discovering that the plus-size woman is often a teenager or a woman in her 20s or 30s.
That change in perception of the plus-size woman prompted Kipperman of Gotham Apparel to drastically alter his strategies for making plus-size apparel, which accounts for about 32 percent of his sales. Last spring, he started converting some of his junior styles to plus-size.
One of his biggest bestsellers for the plus-size woman was a 22-inch cropped cardigan for fall. It sells at moderate-price specialty chains. For early spring, the fashion lineup includes mesh rompers and tight cotton ribbed shirts.
"At first, everybody in the market thought I was crazy," Kipperman said, adding that he convinced his accounts to test the cropped cardigan, which he says became an overnight success. About 500,000 units at a wholesale price of $15.75 were sold for fall.
"It was," he said, "just phenomenal."

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