The retail industry is on an upswing for women’s body positivity. More businesses are using non-models in their advertising and some companies even offer extended sizes online, if not already available in-store. A 2016 study reports the average American woman is a size 16, but she and other women like her are still struggling to find affordable, fashionable merchandise. Although retailers are beginning to improve their messaging, many are still missing out on a demographic that is ready and willing to spend.
According to Marshal Cohen, Chief Retail Analyst for NPD Group, plus-size clothing sales amount to only 50 percent of their potential, if only the industry made more product available. In the evolving retail landscape, retailers shouldn’t be afraid to make changes or rethink their audience. “In 2016, the women’s plus-size clothing market was worth an estimated $20.4 billion; for three years prior, growth outpaced that of women’s clothing sales overall,” says Arianna Rebolini, Journalist for Esquire Magazine.
Many manufacturers will say it’s simply too expensive to produce extended sizes. Marc Bain, a Fashion Reporter for Quartz, explains manufacturers can’t use the same measurements of a size 8 top and scale them up for a size 18 woman. Because a designer needs to create a new pattern, the added time translates into added production costs. However, many retailers wanting to supply a consumer need would say it’s worth it.
In an attempt to turn around business, Neiman Marcus is introducing plus-size apparel departments in five of its off-price stores. Early this September, Lauren Conrad will offer 0X-3X sizes through her Kohl’s-based LC brand, following a highly anticipated presentation during New York Fashion Week.
Darcy Blessing is in the process of launching her own business, Blissed Out Boutique, which will target women ages 35-55 who wear size large and up. In regards to plus-size accessibility in the industry, Blessing says, “There’s definitely room to grow, but I’m encouraged by some brands that are making bold statements in that direction.”
Even if retailers like Maurice’s or Macy’s do offer plus sizes in-store, the offering is available in a separate section of the store. The layout can create a negative experience for women who simply want to wear the same fashions as their friends in smaller sizes.
Blessing hopes she will be able to mix her standard and plus sizes. “I want to give an experience to these women that tells them they’re beautiful just the way they are,” she says. “You don’t have to go to a separate part of the store to shop. We have fashions that really are going to cater to your curves in a way that makes you feel good.”
The problem is, it isn’t easy to find the same merchandise produced in both missy’s and plus sizes. Blessing says she has about 95 percent of merchandise ready for her store, but only three pieces will be available in both sizing categories.
Other manufacturers will tell you the demand for plus sizes simply isn’t there. Research by ModCloth reports 77 percent of plus size women say it’s difficult to find well-fitting garments and 81 percent said they would spend more on clothing if they had options in their size.
There’s also more opportunity to bring in additional sales through younger shoppers. According to a 2015 study by NPD Group, 34 percent of American teens are purchasing plus size clothing—that’s almost doubled the amount from the three years prior.
According to Blessing, the demand is there; retailers just have to do a better job of marketing. “I think retailers have yet to find out the best channel and best delivery to reach that market,” she says. “I think that’s a scary thing for some people in the industry. But if you don’t market to plus size women directly and tell them, ‘I have what you need,’ they’re not going to come to you.”
Even though Victoria’s Secret and Aerie both offer extended sizes, Aerie is the brand gaining momentum during this challenging time in retail. Some account the American Eagle-based brand’s success to its #AerieReal campaign, which highlights body positivity and women of all sizes promoting the lingerie retailers’ merchandise.
Part of being a good marketer is just learning about your customer. Blessing shops plus size herself and understands how challenging shopping can be. “A lot of these women are professionals. They balance home, family, and jobs. We experience things like wishing we had more time to take care of our bodies. We might be a size or two larger than we want to be, but we still want to feel relevant; we still want to feel pretty.”
Extended sizing is also a men’s issue. “Efforts to diversify men’s fashion are much newer, however, and they come with their own unique stigmas,” says Rebolini. “The women’s plus-size industry is built on overt body positivity. But that kind of defiant self-love is often seen as outside the bounds of mainstream masculinity…”
This stigma could play a role in preventing more retailers from offering big and tall or extended sizes. The Centers for Disease Control reports in 2014, the average male’s waist measured 40 inches. “Yet even mainstream stores like Forever 21, Unif, and Urban Outfitters don’t make anything above a 38-inch waist,” says Rebolini.
The retail industry still has hurdles to climb and misconceptions to shatter, but progress is being made. If you want to source fashionable merchandise and accessories for men or women of all sizes, register online to start your search at the OFFPRICE Show February 10-13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.