Here's How to Restructure the Plus Size Industry
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: the plus size revolution is upon us.
There’s money to be made. And everybody’s trying to make it.
In fact, it seems that every week now, as one apparel retailer after another embarrassingly stumbles for a variety of reasons (I’m looking at you, ANF), the battle cry “they should expand their market – go plus size!” is offered as a “catch all” solution for increasing revenue.
The problem is, of course – despite the margin of American women who measure plus size, the seeming dearth of appropriate apparel options, and the financial land-grab that is this market/demographic – no one seems to be getting the plus size market right. And it’s not just snobbery, indifference, or bigotry that’s holding apparel retailers back.
The plus size system – designers, retailers, and consumers – is fundamentally broken. And it will take a million different fixes/options, from a million different sources and retailers, to fix the problem.
Before we start however, a disclaimer: it’s a mistake most make, grouping the myriad of plus size consumers into a singular entity – the “plus size” market. Just as “traditional” size women come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and demographics, plus size women reflect the cultural variation that is the American shopper. A 30-year-old attorney, for example, may dabble in Forever 21 gear, but spend the majority of disposable income at Bloomingdales.
A size 14 may often find items that fit at a variety of established retailers, including Old Navy, Kohl’s, and Target, while a size 20 faces a myriad of challenges unknown and unfamiliar to the size 30. Furthermore, as the plus size consumer continues being treated as “the other” by both traditional designers and retailers, the plus size online community has stepped up to fill the fashion void, turning fatshion bloggers into retail superstars, making and breaking brands and offerings with a single post.
So now, a look at the current players in the plus size market: in one group, we have traditional department stores and brands - a category that has historically catered to the non-plus size marketplace, and includes Saks, Old Navy, and the Limited – that continue dipping the proverbial apparel toe into the plus size market, to varying or no success.
Here’s why: on the high end (for retailers like Saks, Nordstrom’s etc.), plus size consumers have learned to work their way around uncomfortable shopping experiences (i.e. rude salespeople, judgmental shoppers, etc.) and limited selection by tailoring and expanding “traditional” sized designer pieces (i.e. sewing together 2 Chanel jackets, etc.), creating a self-fulfilling apparel ecosystem.
On the “lower” end, brands like Old Navy offer generic plus size apparel exclusively through ecommerce channel, thereby leaving fit and fashion “up to chance”, while retailers such as Limited and Forever 21 have failed, for a variety of reasons, at the plus size game.
Limited’s Eloquii, for example, botched its seemingly non-existent marketing campaign while offering “much of the same” in terms of product and experience, while Forever 21’s plus size offering has proven all wrong in terms of cut, fit, and fashion - plus, what plus size consumer wants to share the bricks and mortar experience with the traditional Forever 21 consumer?
In short, what these traditional retailers and brand have taught the market is that it takes time, research, and diligence to successfully create and profitably market fashionable and versatile plus size apparel. In turn, the plus size consumer simply won’t come running for just any product and experience thrown into the mix. Making a move in this market can be an incredibly expensive proposition.
Now, to the better-known “mass” plus size retailers – Lane Bryant, Torrid, Avenue, etc. First, there are, in relation to traditional retailers of the same profile, relatively few recognizable, and ergo “dependable," plus size brands in exchange, and those that exist are, for the most part, both ubiquitous and, broadly “speaking,” mediocre in terms of both quality and aesthetic; consequently, while to many “outside” this retail community, Lane Bryant is synonymous with “plus size” fashion, this brand and its ilk is simply a generic “stop gap” featuring generic polyester pants and ill-fitting jackets.
To assume that these few brands will “fill the plus size” gap adequately fails to take into account exactly what makes apparel retail special: for every consumer, there are dozens of different preferences, needs, and demands. Lane Bryant may offer a Gap-style white t-shirt in a variety of sizes, but how many white t’s and dull-colored rayon-blend suits does one consumer need?
Finally, we come to the boutique, through which niche, plus size designs are marketed and sold, often to rave reviews from plus size superstar bloggers and consumers alike. Here’s why: while from the outside, it appears to most that the issue with plus size apparel is a simple lack of options – that there simply too few designers working in this market, that assumption is absolutely incorrect; the issue here isn’t necessarily lack of creative, independent design, but instead a successful and national omni-channel strategy through which to “push” this product.
Consequently, on the “micro-end” of the plus size market, an extremely fragmented market has emerged, one in which single-and-double location boutiques, often situated in metro areas, sell these lesser-known designs and brands. The lack of operational and financial complexity as well as the financial world’s seeming indifference means many of these boutiques, despite an extremely loyal yet limited customer base, have yet to develop the omni-channel strategy (physical presence and ecommerce) necessary to leverage the bricks-and-mortar consumer into spending multiples online.
Therefore, if the plus size market and players within it could simply restructure itself, dozens, if not hundreds, of independently successful yet undercapitalized retail fiefdoms in major metropolitan areas could fill the niche plus size market, if only for increased capitalization and operational restructuring.
So what’s to be done for the plus size consumer – and, as relevantly, who and what will finally fix the perennial plus size consumer’s understandable complaint “there’s nothing to wear?”
As in all things and markets, the solution will come not from one retailer or player, but dozens. Eventually, the boutique market will coalesce, offering a successful omni-channel acquisition opportunity for a second-tier retailer; meanwhile, while brands ill-suited for plus size lines (i.e. Lululemon, Abercrombie, etc.) continue to catch flack for refusing to create and market appropriate pieces, retailers and brands such as Target and Old Navy will continue tweaking the model until a sustainable plus size strategy the remaining market can follow is in place. Finally, plus size designers serving specific niches will continue to slowly infiltrate the marketplace, until they’re available at a variety of retailers.
The plus size revolution is, indeed, upon us. Most interestingly, however, this revolution appears predictably solvable, though not by the traditional “players” in the market. Look for a classic disruptor to transform this industry. And make no mistake: it will happen sooner, rather than later.
Margaret Bogenrief is a partner with ACM Partners, a boutique crisis management and distressed investing firm serving companies and municipalities in financial distress. Article Source