Byline: Jennifer Owens

WASHINGTON — The moderate-price plus-size business, once a broadly defined market, is splitting into narrower segments. Competition is intensifying, and manufacturers and retailers alike are searching for ways to attract the large-size customer.
“Retailers are staking out their territory within moderate,” said longtime large-size fashion consultant Fern Bratten, based in Orlean, Va. “It is very exciting. What you’ve had is one department that fits a 70-year age range and a 150-pound weight [span] and women who are from 5 feet 1 to 5 feet 11. It’s a ridiculously broad market that has long cried out for definition.”
In January, Bratten hooked up with Kellwood Co.’s Melrose division to create a plus-size line called Fern Bratten for Melrose, which will be tested this summer in such stores as Dillard’s, Belk’s and Mercantile Stores. The line, which features dressy and casual knits, retails from $50 to $60. She declined to offer first-year sales projections. “There’s no question that the business is more competitive now.
There are certainly a lot more people doing large sizes,” said Bernard J. Wein, president of Catherine Stores, which consists of four divisions, all catering to women who wear sizes 16 to 28. “There’s a lot of pressure on plus-size vendors to produce merchandise that can’t be found at every retailer.”
Sears, Roebuck & Co., which has long appealed to a 40-plus large-size customer, is using its store brands to attract a wider audience. It expanded its Crossroads private label weekend casual wear last spring to include plus sizes. Crossroad’s plus-size line, like its misses’ counterpart, features denim, corduroy and other natural fiber fabrics. It consists primarily of separates such as mock knits and big shirts.
First Issue, an exclusive line for Sears from Liz Claiborne, is expanding into large sizes for late fall.
Liz Claiborne already has plus sizes in its other moderate brands — Villager, Emma James and Russ.
Moderate specialty retailers are also diving into the large-size market. Dress Barn, for example, has found success with a new larger, combination store format, mixing its traditional junior store with a previously separate Dress Barn Woman unit. The Suffern, N.Y.-based 701-store chain, which now has 177 combination stores, is focusing its expansion on opening new joint stores and converting existing separate stores into the combination format. In all, the chain expects to open 70 new and renovated combination stores by mid-1998.
A similar approach is under way at Deb Shops, where a year-old plus-size business accounted for much of the chain’s 14.7 percent growth in same-store sales for the third quarter over the same period last year. Deb Shops, based in Philadelphia, operates 289 units, including 10 plus-size-only stores and 96 combination stores. For its plus-size business, Deb Shops has followed its traditional junior units by positioning itself for the youngest women’s market, ages 12 to 17.
“We’re very young, very hip and very inexpensive,” said advertising director Dina Katz. “Not everyone who’s large-sized is over 25.”
That’s why Deb Shops is looking to current junior trends for its plus-size collections, from athletic stripes on pants and shirts to what Katz calls “denim-friendly” clothes such as knit tops. Deb Shops offers only private label apparel, which includes favorites such as Zum Zum and DBA-LA, Katz said.
To Deb Shops, however, the plus-size business is still considered a fledgling effort, while it continues to sharpen its image to consumers.
“You have to be careful,” Katz said. “Not everything that looks good on a junior looks good on a larger-size girl and vice versa. It’s not about being all things to all people.” Still, such new approaches add flavor to existing fashions from longtime sources such as Jensen Manufacturing, Alfred Dunner by Made-Rite Industries and Koret of California, said Bratten, who established her large-sized fashion consulting career while working for Koret.
“They really are the flagships and they do a beautiful job,” Bratten said. But, she added, there is still room for growth among manufacturers and retailers who offer apparel primarily for an over-50 consumer.
“Lane Bryant really tries to reflect the junior trends,” she said. “I think there’s a real need.”
At Lane Bryant, which has been serving the large-sized market for 94 years, variety has always been key, especially since the chain considers its market ranging in age from 25 to 50, said Chris Hansen, vice president of marketing. That’s why Lane Bryant carries a broad array of merchandise, she said, from casual Saturday clothes to Sunday church dresses to Monday suits.
“We really try, across the collection, to offer denim and corduroy to linen separates and suits if that customer wants to dress that way,” she said. In fact, Hansen cautioned that breaking out moderate large-sized fashions — once considered a niche market — into smaller and smaller categories may eventually hurt large-sized retailers as the market becomes increasingly specialized.
“In the end, I think people are going to have to put a stake in the ground and convince the customer why they need to go in that store,” she said.
At Catherine Stores, which mixes standbys such as Alfred Dunner and Koret of California with a heavy dose of private label, Wein agreed, pointing to focus groups his company recently conducted in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Basically, what they’re saying is that they are shopping anywhere. There is no loyalty at this time,” Wein said.
At one time, plus-size women had deep shopping loyalty, possibly because they had so little choice, he said.
“But now they see so many more options. So if they don’t find it in one place, they’ll go somewhere else,” Wein said, adding that the focus groups showed large-sized women look first for selection, second for price.
“Fit is very, very important to the large-sized customer; quality, too,” he said. “They don’t want to overpay, but they’ll tell you over and over again that price alone isn’t the motivator to buy something.”
That’s exactly why Bon-Ton Department Stores’ aggressive campaign for large-sized customers is based on more than price, said Jan Ladnier, senior vice president of marketing for the retail chain.
“We think she’s a fashion customer and we treat her as a fashion customer,” Ladnier said. “We really try to speak to every aspect of her needs.”
To do that, Bon-Ton has added intimate apparel, accessories and hosiery to its existing large-sized apparel mix. In addition, the department store chain has begun conducting targeted fashion seminars and specialized advertising campaigns.
“We advertise to her,” said Ladnier. “We talk to her. We do special promotions for her just as we did to develop the petite customer.”

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