Byline: Alice Welsh

NEW YORK — Junior manufacturers are working hard to meet the needs of the large size customer, and it seems to be paying off. Several firms reported that the large size junior category currently accounts for 20 to 45 percent of their businesses, up from an average of 10 percent two years ago.
Similarly, retailers are paying more attention to this customer by adding more junior lines to their special sizes departments.
Although the phrase “large size junior” might sound like a contradiction in terms, much like “jumbo shrimp,” it isn’t. The category refers to large size merchandise that has been given the kind of styling seen in the junior market.
Items such as a bustier, or a baby T-shirt, or short shorts, have all been big in the junior market. Now they are available in large sizes, sometimes with styling modifications.
Manufacturers and retailers attribute the increase in the category to an awareness of what customers want and the fact that although Americans are getting bigger, they still want youthful-looking clothes.
“The large size junior business has definitely grown in the last two to three years,” said Elaine Wally, a principal in Doneger Buying Connection, the large size division of the Doneger Group, a buying office here.
“There are a lot of new resources popping up for this fall season. Retailers are looking to grow new business and new customers, and that’s one area that’s been overlooked. “A large size junior wants to look like everyone else, and there are a lot of crossover customers as well,” she said, noting that the large size misses’ customer often wants the trends that the junior market offers.
“I think Americans are getting bigger,” said Steve Harvey, design director of Zana-Di, a junior denim and sportswear firm. “The larger junior customer wants to wear what her counterparts are wearing, so everything we make in juniors, we make in large sizes. I don’t change anything but the size.”
“We always catered to certain customers’ needs, but we are having more and more requests from retailers for large size juniors in the last year,” added Laura Amodeo, sales manager for Cool Wear, a junior manufacturer based here.
“I think buyers are paying more attention to what customers want — specifically what their needs are. In today’s volatile market, you can’t take chances.”
Cool Wear does mostly private label in large sizes. The growth has been in department stores and not in fashion-forward junior chains such as Wet Seal and Contempo Casuals, Amodeo said.
She estimates that 20 percent of the company’s volume is from this sector, pointing out: “It’s a good niche to be in. The domestic competition is not so great, and domestic business is becoming more important as buyers want to buy closer to the season than ever.” Boscov’s, a 25-unit department store chain based in Reading, Pa., started carrying junior large sizes in a small way about five years ago.
“It really didn’t mean anything until last year when we really went after the business, and it exploded,” said Judy Wilt, women’s and junior buyer.
“We saw a change in our customer base. Basics were slowing down, and we decided to bring in fresh new things we found in the junior market. It really paid off.” Boscov’s merchandises the junior large sizes with misses’ large sizes because they have a lot of crossover customers.
“There are a lot of misses’ customers who want to look stylish and trendy. They’ve shown us that they are not as conservative as we thought they were. Last year we sold a lot of bike shorts, tie-dyed looks, overalls, and rompers — more youthful looks.”
Capacity Juniors, which opened a year ago, has seen its large size business take off. It now accounts for 40 to 45 percent of sales, according to Billie Yegin, executive director and merchandiser of the firm.
Yegin and other manufacturers said retailers still need to change their merchandising tactics in this area.
“The problem is with merchandising. Most buyers put the styles in a special sizes area instead of with the juniors. Junior customers don’t want to shop in the misses’ areas. I think the customer is confused and wants to shop just like her friends,” said Yegin.
“Most large size departments are for much older women. They are not geared for the younger customer,” said Christina Serbes, designer for Anxiety, a junior firm here.
“Our business is phenomenal. It’s grown from $6 million five years ago to $15 million,” said Serbes. “We have hired a new merchandiser just to work with large sizes to make sure we are meeting our retailers’ needs.”
Silverwear, a moderate junior firm here, has been doing large size juniors for about two years. The business is growing, especially in the catalog area, said Gail Leida, merchandiser for the line. Silverwear’s catalog business includes Avon, Spiegel, Popular and James River Trading.
“We don’t do every style in large sizes, but we do modifications to styles such as taking a cropped sweater and making it longer,” said Leida.
At Gemilli, the large size business started picking up about three years ago, according to Robin Kabakow, sales associate.
“Americans in general are getting larger, but they still want to be right on top of fashion like everyone else. Not everyone can wear a size 4.”
Large sizes account for 20 to 25 percent of Gemilli’s business, said Kabakow.
Ashley Stewart, a 14-unit, large size-chain based here, has started carrying more merchandise from junior vendors in the last year, according to Ira Quint, president.
“Our customer is very fashion-oriented, and some junior lines offer more of these looks. These lines are becoming increasingly important to our business.”