The so-called “plus-size” market (typically size 14 and up) has been an under-served opportunity for as long as I’ve been in retail. Historically there were some good reasons for this.
Traditionally, the main thing retailers optimized was physical space and inventory.
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Accordingly, the breadth and depth of the merchandise carried in a store would, more or less, follow a statistical distribution of sizes, adjusted by color ranges carried and constrained by inventory budgets and the literal store-by-store physical limitations of tables and racks. From a short-term financial perspective this made sense.
Unfortunately it’s also true that many parts of the fashion industry exhibited both overt and unconscious bias against images of women that did not conform to their unrealistic–and often unhealthy–“ideals” of feminine beauty. As a result it’s clear that the industry has been painfully slow to represent an appropriate spectrum of customers in advertising, design and product offering.
At long last this appears to be changing, primarily owing to a few key factors:
The long tail of e-commerce. The inherent economics of a direct-to-consumer business model allows different capital dynamics to be at play. E-commerce warehousing has important advantages over physical store distribution (much lower real estate cost, greater ability to flex space, economies of scale in centralizing inventory), making it considerably more economically feasible to carry a wider range of products.
Indisputable demographic changes. It has been true for some time that Americans are getting larger and, by all indications, this isn’t likely to change. While it would have been wise for retailers to have taken this market more seriously years ago, perhaps the most recent data makes it painfully obvious how significant the incremental growth opportunity is.
Growing cultural awareness and acceptance. Numerous sociological factors, among them the overall ‘body positive movement’, heightened (and well deserved) criticism of the fashion and advertising industries’ obsession with rail thin models and the growing social media popularity of certain key celebrities and influencers have all contributed to subtle but important shifts in perspectives.
Demonstrated “mainstream” success. Special size catalogs and stores (think Lane Bryant and Avenue) have been around for a long time, and collectively they represent a large market segment. Yet somehow they were seen as niche or unusual situations operating outside of the mainstream. In recent years, however, brands like Aerie have launched winning “real women” marketing campaigns. Major traditional retailers, from Kohl’s to Charlotte Russe to JC Penney and beyond, are seeing success as they invest in the plus-size opportunity. Newer online-only brands like Eloquii are realizing strong growth.
As is well documented in this excellent report from Coresight Research, the simple truth is that the plus-size sector is already large and growing faster than the overall market. Despite this momentum, however, many opportunities to eliminate areas of customer dissatisfaction and amplify the overall experience remain. Retailers that wish to take full advantage of this growth area would be wise to keep a few things in mind:
Saying you are customer-centric and being customer-centric are two different things. Most retailers say they are customer-centric and strive to be innovative. And yet the vast majority have thus far failed to seize the plus-size opportunity. It’s well past time to stop paying lip service and get into action.
Treat different customers differently. It has always been a good idea to move toward greater personalization. No customer wants to be average, but more importantly in the anytime, anywhere, anyway world of today, no customer has to settle for being treated that way. The future of most retail will be determined by those retailers that have the greatest level of customer insight and are able act on it in relevant and remarkable ways.
Fix it in the mix; silos belong on farms. One of the reasons so many retailers missed the plus-size opportunity is due to their relentless focus on silo-ed performance analysis.
Apparel buyers consistently under represented plus-size dresses in their assortments (as just one example) because they don’t get any credit for the handbags, cosmetics, kids apparel or whatever else that customer might buy when they are in the store (or on the website). If you are not thinking cross-shopping, market basket size and lifetime value you are going to keep making some dumb decisions.
Here comes Amazon. Amazon already has a stable of plus-size private brands. They will have more. They currently lack the fashion credibility and physical store presence to fully prosecute this opportunity. That is almost certain to change in the not too distant future.
There is really no such thing as plus-sized. Representation is vitally important. The industry can, and absolutely should, do a better job of depicting a spectrum of body types in media–and in other aspects of how they do business. In a different light, when it comes to how sizing is presented to the consumer, does it ultimately help anybody to make this increasingly arbitrary distinction, particularly when the average (American) woman wears between a size 16 and 18? Ultimately it’s all just sizes. And different fits. And colors. And patterns. And styles. And on and on.
The retailer’s job is to understand the rich tapestry of differences, to curate their unique point of view and to deliver an intensely rich, relevant and differentiated experience at scale for all the customer segments they choose to serve.
With growth so hard to come by for most retailers these days, it is worth asking why so many have ignored this opportunity for so long?