PLUS SIZES GROW, BUT PACE SLOWS

Byline: Shirliey Fung

NEW YORK — The plus-size market has been an area of growth for several years, but moderate and better vendors agree that business in the upcoming year will be challenging even for this red-hot segment.
A recent Fairchild Strategic Information Services Report, based on data from the NPD American Shoppers Panel, showed the women’s large-size apparel market growing by 11.3 percent from 1999 to 2000, increasing from $24.7 million to $27.4 million, and that sales of large-size apparel rose to more than $26 billion. That gives the plus-size market a 27 percent share of all women’s apparel, making it the fastest-growing segment in the industry.
However, with a slowing economy, many manufacturers and retailers are scaling back expectations and planning to expand business less aggressively.
“Every area, no matter how strong, is affected by the business climate. Everybody is affected by the markdown situation,” said Barry Zelman, vice president of Delta Burke, who said his company’s earlier plans of 15 to 20 percent growth have been scaled back to 8 to 10 percent.
Moderate retailers like Lane Bryant started marking down earlier than usual last year, slashing winter merchandise prices up to 40 percent in pre-Christmas sales. Chris Hanson, executive vice president of marketing, said the post-Christmas discounts would go deeper still, in order to clear out the winter merchandise to make room for warmer weather offerings.
“Everyone’s suffering from this retail atmosphere,” said Hanson, but admitted that part of the problem was that consumers found Lane Bryant’s holiday assortments to be too dressy and overstated.
For spring, she predicted that cleaner silhouettes would dominate.
“There will be less embroidery and less decoration. Spring was planned to be more casual and cleaned up, so we’re lucky about that,” she said, adding that many of the items offered, such as slim pants and capris, will be offered in a woven tech-stretch fabric.
Hanson also predicted that prints will still be popular, with geometric patterns leading the pack. After 100 years, the plus-size clothier, which currently operates 669 units, has matured and the retailer’s focus is no longer store expansion, although 20 or 30 outposts will likely be added this year, she noted.
“What we really want to do is to make sure that we’re in the best malls. It’s a function of closing down the stores that are not in the best malls and renovating the stores in the older malls that are still good for us,” said Hanson.
Last year, 75 stores were renovated, Hanson added, and by 2002, over half of the stores in the chain will be overhauled.
In the year ahead, Lane Bryant will also focus on growing its top 15 items, which include tech-stretch clothing and Venezia Clothing Co. jeans. A new intimate apparel line, backed by an advertising campaign featuring Chris Noth of “Sex and the City,” will make its debut in February. The ad campaign will bow in February magazines such as In Style, Talk and Mode.
Delta Burke will focus on its department store business this year. The moderate vendor currently distributes its product through QVC, catalogs and its e-commerce site.
Zelman said he likes “the direction that department stores are going in right now with the right product being offered at moderate price points.” Department stores account for nearly half of the company’s revenue and Zelman hopes that figure will rise some 10 percent next year by doubling its present 250-door distribution.
In its mail-order business, Delta Burke plans to narrow its target audience.
“The catalog business has been difficult,” said Zelman. “One of the problems that we’ve had in the past with catalogs is that we haven’t necessarily gotten Delta into catalogs that target the right customers.”
Zelman pointed to J.C. Penney Co.’s 16W & Up as one such catalog.
“It really goes out to Middle America,” he said. “It targets the American woman from age 30 to 55, while some of the others target the younger customer.”
On the fashion front, Zelman said dark- to medium-washed denim and stretch denim should perform well in the casual category this year, while career sales should be spurred by layering pieces in seasonless fabrics.
For both categories, Zelman predicted that bold colors and geometric and animal prints would still be major factors. He believes his customer is even ready for print bottoms.
“Customers were shying away because bolder print bottoms made them look bigger, but we’re getting away from that in bigger sizes,” he said. “We’re not going to be afraid to do print skirts this year.”
Plus-size model Emme’s eponymous better line launched in 50 doors last year and is planing a fourfold expansion to 200 doors this year, said, Peter Goodman, chief executive officer.
“One thing that’s very important to us is a disciplined expansion,” Goodman said. “We don’t want to oversaturate in any given sales area. Some brands sell to too many locations and therefore there’s not really any incentive for the customer if she can go anywhere to get the product. We’re trying to create a more destination shopping kind of approach.”
The vendor is also working hard to create educational partnerships with the department stores.
“The sales staff needs to have a lot more credibility. There is a shared responsibility,” said Emme, who sends out newsletters to department store sales staffs.
“We’re trying to get the business of the misses’ department woman who is a size 12, but who is fuller on the bottom or top. We need the sales staff to help the customers make the crossover,” said Goodman. “We have found that there are a lot of women who have a chest size beyond C and D, and a lot of misses’ tops are too small, so she’s starting to become our customer for tops.”
Some of the material in the newsletter comes from the online survey that customers can fill out at emmestyle.com.
“We’ve learned from our customers,” said Emme. “We’ve learned that women do like embellishments. We’ve rectified waistbands that might have been a little too snug for her. She doesn’t want a boxy fit. She loves the fact that there’s color. She loves sheers. She’s asking for layering pieces that are closer to the body.”
Taking that cue, Emme’s spring line will feature vibrant, graphic prints in greens, reds, black and yellows for sleeveless cowl-neck and wrap-front tops. For the colder weather, leather and houndstooth prints will be important.
The line, which currently outfits women sizes 14-24, will add sizes 10 and 12 by the end of the year. Over the next two years, the manufacturer also plans to add intimate apparel and accessories to its offerings.
In addition, the vendor is working on a women’s petites line for 2002. Customers can fill out a separate online survey for petites and Emme promises the line’s design will reflect customers’ wants.
“It’s a really great tool to be able to go into department stores and say that this percentage of women are full figured yet petite,” said Emme.
Fern Bratten, the nearly five-year-old moderate line that bears the name of its designer and is owned by Kellwood Co., moved from the auspices of the David Dart division to Koret earlier this week. Under Koret, the large-size line will be able to capitalize on moderate vendor Koret’s worldwide sourcing capabilities.
Dart, who has designed the line for the past three years, is bowing out of his design responsibilities and the line will now be created by a team.
Bratten, president, said that she expects the novelty factor to continue to dominate this year.
“The customer walked away from basics [last season],” she said. “There is more novelty going forward in spring 2001 than I’ve ever seen in the market.”
Bratten hopes that short jackets, which fall at the hip, tunics and pin-tucked camp shirts will give customers the incentive to open their wallets. She added that piece-dyed items will be hot, as well.
“Garment dyeing gives you a much more distressed garment,” said Bratten. “[Piece-dyed fabrics] are richer and more intense. These are the kinds of small adjustments that we’re making that will help us be successful this spring.”
Bratten is also seeing the career trend intensify and said: “We’ve seen a very big switch in customers wanting to dress more for the office.”
Bratten also will focus on solidifying already-existing relationships with department stores, specialty stores and catalogs rather than concentrating on horizontal growth. She aims to have the line increase from 200 to 250 doors by yearend.
“Even though the plus-size market continues to be healthier than most of apparel, there are still challenges,” said Bratten. “With the way the economy is, you have to be prudent in growing doors.”
She added that the company will also concentrate on growing its mail-order sales with catalogs from Coldwater Creek and Nordstrom, for example.
“I don’t think you can put all your eggs in one basket in this economy,” said Bratten. “It makes good business sense to diversify.”

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