Measuring the Plus-Size Fashion Industry: Three Ways Retail Brands Are Failing


Fashion retailers have been struggling for years to please plus-size shoppers, even though data clearly shows that buyers are eager for on-trend plus-size clothing.  Vera Wang's highly popular "Simply Vera" line for Kohl's has a disappointing lack of offerings for plus-size shoppers – limited mostly to loungewear. Similarly, Target has spurred widespread criticism – and even boycotts – for excluding plus sizes from their highly-anticipated capsule collections. And Lily Pulitzer recently came under fire for posting fat-shaming cartoons on its office walls.

But retailers don't need to experience an outright boycott to understand that these customers feel marginalized and neglected by meager plus-size offerings. All they need to do is ask their customers. As one plus-size shopper recently said, "I would like to be more trendy but having lived all of my adult life as plus size, I have pretty much resigned myself to t-shirts, jeans, shorts, and the occasional dress that takes hours and lots of stores to ever find."

The voices of the "plus community" – as they are known online in their myriad, highly active forums – are clamoring to declare their dissatisfaction. Currently, online-only niche retailers are the best (and sometimes only) option for plus-size women looking to take their style game to new heights. But this limitation to a virtual experience denies shoppers an in-person browsing experience. Shipping fees and wait times feel like a punishment, only serving to increase disappointment if a purchase must be returned. 

To date, no single retailer has emerged as a bastion of plus-size fashion: visit any major department store and you'll notice the women's plus-size department feels like a dowdy afterthought, not a fashion-forward focal-point. So how can retailers deliver the apparel that plus-size consumers seek? Here's a look at what retail can do to own this lucrative market.

Too little is too late
The latest news in plus-size fashion has been met with lots of cheers: in May, Rebel Wilson, star of Pitch Perfect 2, announced her collaboration with plus-size retailer Torrid. This coming holiday season, she'll release an exclusive capsule collection of 25 affordable pieces for women who wear sizes 12 to 28. The plus community has been singing the praises of Torrid for partnering with a stylish, confident personality in an effort to deliver highly desirable, trendy looks.

But will it be enough? Consumers are eager for a steady source of fashionable clothing, and the 25 pieces of a capsule collection at holiday time won't deliver. If history is any indication, capsules sell out in days (or even hours) and leave customers frustrated by inadvertently highlighting the inaccessibility of "the good stuff." Some pieces may even spend time on eBay before finally making their way to the customers blackmailed into overpaying. 

To get ahead of demand, retailers need to be actively listening to the needs and aspirations of the plus-size shopper – which are constantly evolving (just like any other shoppers'). Tapping directly into both the functional and style needs of this consumer will help identify the way she wants to feel in her clothing, and ensure a better product and retail experience.

Stop playing catch-up
As more niche retailers are emerging to provide a superior plus-size retail offering, the plus community is becoming quick to alert those who are under-delivering. For example, fashion blogger Chastity Garner-Valentine wrote an open letter boycotting Target for its lack of larger sizes in one of its capsule collections. Later, Target worked with her and other prominent plus-size fashion bloggers to launch and promote its new AVA & VIV plus-size label.

Mass market retailers need to do a much better job of understanding shoppers' underlying emotions, working alongside them to deliver the clothes and shopping experiences these customers now expect.

Don't just recognize the plus-size difference – deliver on It
Many have applauded Lane Bryant's recent #ImNoAngel campaign, which cheekily dismantles women's supposed desire to emulate the winged models of Victoria's Secret fame. In the ads, Lane Bryant models protest that they can't be limited by "traditional" lingerie offerings, and they embrace what differentiates them from the angelic crowd. As far as plus-sized consumers are concerned, it's a step in the right direction; it's creating a true shift in how intimate apparel is marketed to plus-size women.

But however empowered the plus community may be by this philosophy, the campaign's impact hasn't yet shifted the way shoppers see the brand. Lane Bryant still struggles to shake off its reputation for boring, shapeless tunics and basic black pants, and isn't seen as the go-to for trends that women want to rock.

To truly meet the needs of the plus community, brands need to pay attention to consumers' desire not just to "own" the plus-size difference, but partner with them to design products that genuinely reflect it.

Polly MacIsaac is vice president of client services for C Space, a customer collaboration consultancy.

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