Are Retailers Finally Getting Serious About Servicing Plus Size Women?

Long-time readers will remember that I’ve bemoaned the state of the plus-sized clothing industry for many years. And those of you who’ve met me will know why. I’m a customer. And I’m not alone. Current estimates of the percentage of the female population larger than size 12 are up to 60%.

That’s a lot of money being left on the table.

Now, to be clear, there has been some real movement. Lane Bryant has “come out of the closet” with ads like “I’m No Angel” showing larger-than-size-12 women in their undergarments. Melissa McCarthy has designed (or at least approved) a line for Home Shopping Network. Old Navy carries some plus size fashions. JC Penney has just announced a new plus-sized department to be rolled out to all its stores.

It’s the high-middle end that seems lacking – the clothes someone like, oh… me, might wear from the places I might shop. Retailers charge what amounts to usurious prices for the same clothes a “regular-sized” woman would buy. When push comes to shove, if I have to spend $1,000 on a suit I will; I just won’t do it very often. And it’s vaguely offensive. We may be bigger, but we’re not using that much extra fabric!

So, that’s enough about me. Here is the core, de-personalized question. With all the focus retailers have on their customers, how are they missing this ginormous (sorry for the technical term) opportunity?

There are a number of theories.

Tim Gunn, in my one-and-only conversation with him a couple of years ago, felt that product developers were too lazy to design specifically for large and/or petite women. You can’t just port the same designs from small women to large women, and they just don’t bother.

I think there’s a subtle stigma on the designer too. If you ever watch Project Runway, you can see the distaste on budding designers’ faces when they have a “regular woman” challenge. They’d just rather work with the “blank slates” of skinny girls.

The dilemma of inadequate history on sales cannot be overstated. If you walk through a moderate priced department store that does sell plus-sized clothes you are likely to be overwhelmed by an over-inventoried position. Someone has incomplete or just plain bad data. I’m not sure why, but it’s clearly a problem that persists year after year after year. I have to say, if I was the plus-sized buyer and was being comped based on sell-through, I’d cut back a LOT. There’s no way that pile of stuff is ever going to sell.

What’s the solution? It strikes me that this is the perfect opportunity for an iterative process that starts with focus groups. It’s great that Melissa McCarthy is overseeing a line – she understands the issue of being a short but big woman. But we need more input into what different shaped women like. It’s almost like we have no real baseline to judge from.

So, retailers (Nordstrom, Saks, Neiman), if you’re looking for a participant in a focus group, I for one am ready, willing and able. I don’t like sequins or rhinestones, I like casual elegance, and I need to dress up more often than never. I’m older than young, but a lot younger than old. And there are a few million others like me.

I hope everyone is getting serious.