Why plus size means big business
The plus size market presents a huge growth opportunity for apparel brands and retailers alike, but despite the overwhelming evidence – there is no shortage of data, obesity statistics, surveys and financial metrics that identify and quantify the business potential in the plus size arena – brands in the UK and Europe have been slow to react to this $20billion market opportunity in a category that continues to outpace the wider industry. Body sizes are diversifying, but few clothing players are following suit and rising to the challenge.
“The plus size market is still under served. Despite the publicity and momentum of the inclusivity movement and the overwhelming data that the plus market opportunity is outpacing the growth of straight size women’s clothes, the apparel industry has been slow to embrace this market segment”, says Alice Rodrigues, senior consultant at apparel business and product development consultancy Alvanon and expert in the plus size apparel segment. Rodrigues has spent 35+ years in the clothing industry and has worked on strategic product lifecycle projects with many of the world’s most successful plus-size brands, retailers and start-ups. Her expertise encompasses garment construction, pattern making and fit development in addition to product development and technical design. According to Rodrigues, the industry’s reluctance to step up to the opportunities in the plus size segment are complex and multiple, ranging from factors such as lack of skills, resources and product knowledge that all have implications on category development. “In some corners of the industry there is still a stigma around plus sizes, or the lingering misconception that this is still for a minority of women”, she says. “There are also some purely pragmatic and logistical challenges facing brands trying to get up to speed in Plus. There is a knowledge gap in creating well-fitting plus product, as it has been a niche market and often only an afterthought in straight size brands, so little attention has been given to investing in and cultivating the skills that are unique to creating plus product. Many brands still take the approach of ‘grading up’ from a base size EU 38 (UK 10, US 8) or EU 40 (UK 12, US 10) into plus sizes. This is due to various factors, often in combination, such as inertia, an effort to economise the SKU’s by avoiding overlapping sizes, and in some cases a lack of understanding as to why this does not result in well-fitting plus garments”, she adds, pointing also to the financial aspect of developing a plus size range. “It is more expensive to produce plus apparel; it takes more materials and sometimes more labour. Brands struggle with how to price these sizes competitively, maintain margins and avoid insulting the very customer they are serving with a ‘fat tax’”, she explains. Meanwhile, for bricks and mortar retailers, finding floor space to offer an inclusive size range poses an additional challenge. “Plus size women do not want to be further stigmatised by being relegated to shopping at the back of the store, with a limited selection of styles or being able to only shop online. But again, how do you serve the needs of the customer and manage the physical limitations of a finite space? Most retailers cannot afford to expand their square footage, especially in trying economic times”, says Rodrigues.
Seizing opportunities in a lucrative market
It may need specialist knowledge to produce a successful plus size range, however, the potential rewards are well worth the investment, says Rodrigues, stressing that the growth opportunities “are self-evident”, with nearly 70% of women in the US alone wearing a size EU 44 (UK 16, US 14) or bigger, yet less than 20% of apparel being made in those sizes, while in the UK, the average size of women is a size EU 46 (UK 18, US 16). Other markets, such as Germany follow a similar pattern, with obesity rates across the EU also on the rise. “It is clear that this market is wide open with opportunity, and the sooner brands act on it, the better positioned they will be to reap the benefits of the investment”, she says.
In order to successfully develop a plus size range, brands need to rethink their approach. There are fit and construction techniques that are unique to the plus size body profile, and the details and construction may need to be adapted from a straight size style in order to achieve proper fit and styling. “Brands should first conduct thorough research into the opportunities that may be unique to their target demographic, including how many sizes in the range they will need. Internally, a brand entering into the plus market should ideally have a dedicated product development and technical team for Plus. The skills required to successfully execute plus apparel are different than straight sizes. If their vendor base is unfamiliar with plus product, they need to anticipate and plan for a learning curve at the outset, including vendor on-boarding, blocks and grading”, offers Rodrigues.
Building a successful plus size strategy
As a specialist in product development and fitting, Alvanon is ideally placed to help brands and retailers overcome these challenges and aid in implementing a strategy for success, beginning by building the right tools a brand needs to develop quality product, such as identifying a core size standard for fit appropriate for the target demographic and the optimal size range. From there, the next step can be taken with garment grading and size set avatars, necessary to vet the fit at all sizes. “This is especially critical with plus sizes as the changes in body shape are more pronounced across a size range than in straight sizes. We can help educate teams in the differences between fitting and engineering plus product with both in-house hands-on and online training and support, as well as helping with building product development processes to facilitate implementation and demographic analysis to guide allocation and sizing strategies”, explains Rodrigues.
Currently, the US is still the clear leader in the plus size sector, but there is a misconception in other markets that the need to cater to a plus size customer is unique to the USA. “People are getting bigger everywhere. The UK and Germany in particular have rates of overweight similar to the US, and in most of Europe it is increasing as well. Brands in the EU are realising this now and moving quickly to get up to speed in developing good plus size product. They are recognising the need to have specialised skill sets and the right tools to create plus product successfully”, says Rodrigues.
It is clear that the plus size market is one sector of the fashion industry that is thriving, and movements such as body positivity have accelerated and further highlighted the need for brands to cater to this customer profile.
“The body positivity movement has put the spotlight on the challenges plus size women have faced in finding good fitting and stylish apparel, and the fact that they are in the majority. Brands who ignore this fact, do so at their own peril. Not only are they missing significant financial opportunity, they are alienating the majority of women who could be potential customers. Brands can capitalise on this by moving as quickly as possible to ensure they create product for this market and making sure they deliver on the promise of quality fit and style selection”, says Rodrigues. “A person’s size, shape or anything else about them that may be different from the stereotypical norm for that matter, should not be an obstacle to them in any way in looking and feeling their best”.