The sheer pace of change has proven to be a point of contention for many within the global apparel industry, who ask the question, should retailers be doing more to cater to a wider range of demographics, including the plus-size market, and if so, how can this be achieved?
A sizable opportunity: the growing value of the plus-size market for apparel
Opportunities for retailers to profit from plus-size clothing sales are growing for several reasons. One is that obesity rates are climbing globally. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity levels have tripled between the 1970s and 2016. In 2016, there were 1.9 billion adults over the age of 18 in the world and of these, 650 million people were classed as medically obese. In 2016 nearly 40% of all adults in the world were classed as overweight, with 13% being classed as obese. In fact, such is the pace of the problem represented by obesity that many experts see obesity as a bigger killer than being underweight. Furthermore, obesity is not just a problem for adults. In 2016, the WHO estimated that more than 340 million children between the ages of 5 and 19 were overweight or obese, and although obesity is a problem that needs to be addressed through global health initiatives, this problem creates a useful set of conditions for apparel retailers in the form of a growing cohort of obese adults and children with more and more cash to spend on apparel.
Global obesity levels are also expected to rise in the next 5 years. Moreover, the plus-size market is also expected to gather momentum independent of growing obesity levels. Some economists are even suggesting that retailers catering to the plus-size market will eventually outstrip those who don’t, and this prediction overlays a stark warning to retailers – ignore the plus-size market at your peril!
Research by Euromonitor International has attempted to understand the scale of the retail opportunity represented by the growing demand for plus-size garments. It suggests that in the USA, the women’s clothing market grew by $6bn between 2016-2017, from $122bn to $128bn. Spending on women’s plus-size clothing has also reached exponential levels of growth. Experts have estimated that in 2016, spending on plus-size garments was 17.5% of the total spend on women’s clothing.
However, when these figures are compared to the growing rates of obesity, experts are suggesting that what is revealed is a market for plus-size women’s clothing that has only been exploited by approximately 50%. A study published in The International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education found that the market for plus-size women’s clothing, which it valued at $21.4 bn had reached less than half of its potential which it estimated, based on obesity levels and the average size of clothing worn by women in 2016, to be $46bn.
Other measures of growth in the market for women’s plus-size clothing reach a similar conclusion – that the market for plus-size women’s apparel is massively untapped. Growth rates within the overall women’s apparel industry (estimated to be 1.5% growth between 2012-2016) are disproportionate compared to growth rates within women’s plus-size apparel markets (estimated at 5.3% between 2012-2016). The plus-size market is projected to reach $60bn in 2020.
Plus-size market growth is also growing within the UK, albeit not with the same vigour that can be seen in the USA and on a global scale. The annual growth rate for general womenswear between 2012 and 2017 was 2.4 %, compared with a growth rate of 3.3% over the same period for the plus-size market. This growth rate is expected to increase to as much as 7.1% between now and 2022.
In 2017 PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimated that the value of the UK plus-size market was 6.6 bn GBP, of which 4.7bn was for female clothing lines. The UK fashion industry generally caters for plus-size customers in two ways – specialist plus-size brands manufacturing plus-size garments, and more generic brands and clothing lines that have extended their usual sizing structure to include a wider range of sizes.
A considerable opportunity for clothing retailers therefore exists and invariably there will be winners and losers – retailers who more successfully appeal to the plus-size market versus those who don’t. Moreover, merely catering for the plus-size market probably won’t be enough to capture that market: the imperative is to appeal to the plus-size market in the right way.
Factors driving the growth of plus-size clothing
Several factors are driving growth of plus-size clothing. Social media has contributed a huge amount in the form of user generated content or UGC, where ordinary people shoot their own videos and upload these to social media or sites like You Tube.
UGC reflects the real, authentic lives of those who shoot the content, and as more and more UGC emerged, there was a growing disparity between how people were portrayed in UGC and in sleek advertising shoots by high-end and popular clothing brands. Research on UGC showed that people placed more trust in UGC as opposed to advertising by high-end brands and this forced brands to take notice and shift their focus towards authenticity. As such, UGC can be seen to have challenged and disrupted more traditional social norms where white and standard-sized models were seen as the “gold standard” to be aspired to, which was in turn reflected in advertising and marketing campaigns by big brands.
Additionally, new measures of advertising reach and impact have been born as a result of the rise of social media. Now “likes”, “shares” and followers are all-important measures of advertising success, and these measures have increasingly shown how impactful more authentic UGC has proven to be in terms of influencing and reaching new customers.
How to attract more plus-size customers
1. Ask and listen
Plus-size customers, like any other customer segment have individual needs and requirements, so in order to successfully cater to the growing plus-size customer segment, it helps to address these customers specifically and ask them what they want and what changes would cater for their needs in the best way possible.
One brand which is enjoying rapid growth is Fabletics which has recently included the tagline “you asked and we listened” on its plus-size range (located in its own dedicated area within the overall website). The brand has also added a large range of specially designed plus-sized items, aimed specifically at plus-sized customers. This is significant because it shows that Fabletics is catering to the individual needs of the plus-size customer, not just extending its existing range to include plus-sizes. This acknowledges that plus-size clothing needs to be conceived specifically with the needs of the larger body in mind as it is often the case that a plus-size design just doesn’t look good on a skinnier body, and vice versa – an item designed for a thinner frame won’t always look good on a larger frame.
2. Plus-size ranges
There is nothing more likely to alienate plus-size customers than the expectation that they will purchase plus-size “versions” of items that have been aimed at slimmer customers. Also the plus-size customer increasingly expects to be engaged and shown images of how items will look on plus-sized bodies. As such retailers need to consider updating their ecommerce and advertising portfolios to ensure that plus-size customers are adequately represented. Retailers who are already “ahead of the game” include German ecommerce brand Zalando. Zalando has recently introduced a new plus-size range of items specifically targeted at the plus-size market. The range of sizes available has also increased, and now includes sizes up to size 24. Zalando has also added the plus-size range to its search criteria, so customers can adjust settings to confine their search to plus-size items only.
Similarly, Puma recently changes its tactics to focus more on the plus-size market. After identifying that it was not adequately catering for plus-size customers, the brand recently introduced an extensive plus-size range which focused heavily on the concept of “stretch”. Designs that stretch are often a staple for plus-sized customers and this shift in focus enabled Puma’s plus-sized customers to feel acknowledged and listened to. Puma also recruited a team of plus-sized models, which played an important role in making its army of plus-sized customers feel represented. Research suggests that customer like to “see themselves” in the clothes they buy, so a more diverse range of models allows for the plus-size women to “see themselves” wearing the items that are being advertised.
Kate Hudson’s new active wear brand Fabletics has also focused heavily on the plus-size market, recruiting a number of plus-sized models and devising campaigns that are aimed specifically at the plus-size market. The brand has also created a dedicated plus-size range and adapted its search criteria so that plus-size customers can narrow their searches down to plus-sized items only.
3. Understand the nuances between plus-size and smaller sized customers
Not all customers are looking for the same thing in clothing, however this does not prevent many retailers from assuming that all customer needs are generic. This is something that has and will continue to alienate the plus-size market, so savvy retailers are now conducting research into what the needs of plus-sized customers are and how these vary from the needs and preferences of smaller-sized customers.
Research on the subject of how the needs and preferences of plus-size shoppers compared to the needs of smaller-sized shoppers revealed several subtle but significant differences between how the two cohorts shop. The research found that whereas 40 % of non-plus size women found inspiration from shop front displays and mannequins displayed in-store, only 34% of plus-sized shoppers did. The role of the internet in inspiring fashion choices among non-plus and plus-size shoppers was also significant in terms of how images were processed by both types of shoppers. When the fashion magazine was the medium being considered as a possible source of inspiration, a much starker difference between the two groups was highlighted, with 21% of non-plus size shoppers gaining inspiration from fashion magazines compared to just 11% of plus-size shoppers.
The subject of how clothes fit was also identified as a key factor separating what plus-size shoppers look for compared to non-plus size shoppers. Research has now revealed that fit is actually a much more important factor for the plus-size shopper compared to the non-plus size shopper, as seen below.
When asked how important fit was to their purchasing behaviour, 84% of plus-sized shoppers, compared to just 78% of non-plus sized shoppers stated that how clothes fit was an all-important factor influencing what and whether they make a purchase. Likewise, plus-size shoppers placed more value on comfortable clothes compared to the non-plus size shopper – the difference was, again, quite significant with 78% of plus-sized shoppers placing more value on comfort compared to 66 % of non-plus sized shoppers.
When these differences between plus-sized and non-plus size shoppers are fully understood, retailers can respond to them by tailoring marketing campaigns and clothing designs according to preferences of each cohort. This then has a knock-on impact on retailer efficiencies like product return rates, which tend to be higher (thus increasing administrative burdens on retailers) when no effort is made to understand what motivates different types of shoppers.
4. Keep a finger on the pulse of emerging trends and social norms
Body positivity has been an emerging trend in the UK and across the world. It is based on the idea of accepting and loving a fat body in the same way as a thin body. In years gone by, being fat was seen as something to be ashamed of, but the trend towards body positivity has made significant progress in changing this and making plus-size seem more “normal” and acceptable.
Plus-sized models have appeared at fashion shows, on leading clothing brand websites and on social media through UGC. Additionally, plus-sized models like Tess Halliday, Callie Thorp and Ashley Graham have achieved fame, notoriety as well as power and influence in terms of their social media following. This shows how the traditional ethos of grey-suited male executives in boardrooms dictating how social norms are portrayed in advertising campaigns, is rapidly being replaced with a more pluralistic and inclusive approach.
Retailers who have noticed and adapted to trends like these are beginning to outstrip their slower, less flexible counterparts in the apparel industry.
Should retailers be focusing more on plus–size customers, and how can retailers attract more plus-sized shoppers?
The market for plus-size items including clothes and accessories is growing rapidly, driven by factors like growing obesity and burgeoning campaigns like body positivity, inclusivity of plus-sized models at fashion shows and the increased focus on ending so-called “body shaming” of fat people. The upshot of this is that retailers are being presented with new opportunities for growth and expansion as the market adjusts to cater to the influx of plus-size shoppers. It is a mistake for retailers to ignore these emerging trends, particularly as shoppers continue to demand more convenience and better shopping experiences. Indeed, retailers should be prepared to devise products that appeal to both plus-sized and non-plus sized customers.
Another potential pitfall that needs to be understood when it comes to responding to emerging plus-size markets is the problem posed by simply “scaling up” existing products and product portfolios to “accommodate” plus-sized shoppers. Plus-sized shoppers have markedly different needs and shopping preferences compared to non-plus sized shoppers, and therefore catering for the former cohort is not simply a matter of making bigger sizes available within an existing product portfolio. It is more important to understand what different types of customers are looking for and how these demands can be catered for.