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Plus Sizes Market Evolves to Serve Overweight Consumers, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The results of a study of American body shapes and sizes reveal trends that impact a number of industries, including apparel.  While a well-known 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already shown that Americans are getting a lot heavier, another study, which was sponsored in 2003 by the U.S. military as well as clothing companies such as Lands’ End, J.C. Penney, Target and Dillard’s, shows how factors such as age, income and occupation affect the size and shape of the human body.  The study utilized an advanced 3D body scanner developed by [TC]2 of Cary, North Carolina.  Researchers scanned over 10,800 men and women in several cities around the U.S.  For example, those who earn up to $25,000 per year weigh 152 pounds on average, while those in the $50,000-to-$75,000 category average 160 pounds.  Those earning above $75,000 weighed nearly the same as those in the lowest income category.  Regardless of income, the average adult American woman is 5’4” tall, weighs 155 pounds and wears a size 14.
More recently, an associate professor at Washington State University estimated that the average American woman wore a Misses size 16 to 18 as of 2016.  Another 2016 study was conducted by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.  It found, after sampling measurements of 5,500 women in the U.S., that since 1988, the average waist size increased from 34.9 inches to 37.5 inches.  American childhood obesity is also a very challenging health problem.
As the American population has grown more ethnically diverse, its average body size has changed.  What was considered “average” 40 years ago is no longer average today.  These developments may mean important changes in the way that apparel designers, retailers and manufacturers anticipate consumers’ needs and desires.
The plus-size market traditionally referred to women’s sizes 14 and up.  (Some observers have also used size 16 as the low-end of plus-size.)  Plunkett Research estimates that 68% of American adult women are of a shape that would traditionally be referred to as “plus-size.”
By 2015, acceptable body types were changing.  For the first time, the Sports Illustrated magazine swimsuit edition featured a plus-sized model on its cover.  France has banned fashion models with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.  Plus-size retailer Lane Bryant ran a successful ad campaign #imNoAngel that slammed lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret Angel line and fashion show.
Plus sizes present new challenges when it comes to fit than regular sizes, since heavier people tend to assume a larger variety of shapes and measurements.  For manufacturers, challenges exist both in terms of labor and material costs.  The costs of additional fabric and thread can be passed on to the customer fairly easily.  However, passing on the costs associated with changing equipment, creating new patterns and training employees on new designs may be more difficult.
For retailers, part of the challenge lies in finding the best way to effectively target these consumers.  Factors that retailers must consider include product placement in stores and store layout.  Having clearly marked sections devoted exclusively to plus-sized garments, rather than combining these garments on racks with non-plus-sizes, may be a good strategy, along with larger fitting rooms with flattering lighting and fixtures.  Studies have found that typical plus size customers spend less on clothes than smaller sized shoppers, but analysts believe this is due to a lack of choice.
There are also design issues.  Many plus-size consumers, especially women, do not want to sacrifice style for proper fit, and they enjoy wearing youthful, chic clothing instead of the tent-like tops and pants that have been their traditional choices.  However, not all designs and fabrics fit all bodies in the same way, and designers must give careful consideration to creating clothes that are both flattering and comfortable for plus-size consumers.

Vanity Sizing
Over recent years, as more and more Americans have entered the “overweight” category, manufacturers have adjusted their sizes to boost consumers’ egos and generate more sales.  This trend is called “vanity sizing.”  What used to be labeled a women’s size 12 may now be called a size six or less.  Vanity sizing has become so common as to make traditional dress sizes nearly meaningless.  
This marketing ploy is intended to make women think they are smaller than they actually are, and to make current fashions seem more flattering to plus-size women.  Instead of asking for a size 14 or 16 (traditionally the entry-level for plus-size dresses) a shopper today might ask for a six or eight, which sounds smaller even though it is not.  Some manufacturers are simply making up their own numbers and rules. 
Chico’s FAS, for example, offers sizes from 000 to 4 (including sizes such as 0.5, 1.5, 2.5 and so forth), rather than sizes 0 to 22.  Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control find 39.8% of all American adults, aged 20+ to be “obese” (41.1% for women and 39.9% for men).  The percentage increases steadily with age, topping out at 44.7% for women aged 40-59, and dropping slightly to 43.1% for women 60+.  The CDC defines “obese” as 203+ pounds or a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30 or more.

     Startups in the plus size market abound.  Eloquii ( began as the plus size label of the now defunct The Limited.  It relaunched as a stand-alone in 2014, offering clothes that are more body conscious than traditional baggy plus sizes.  Eight + Sand ( offers clothing designed to fit a variety of body types in traditional and plus sizes, and shoppers enter their measurements when setting up accounts.  SmartGlamour ( works on a similar concept, customizing each garment it designs depending on shoppers’ measurements.  New York-based Universal Standard also offers a respected variety of plus size fashions.
Mainstream brands are also focusing more on the plus size market.  Walmart, Inc. acquired ModCloth, a size-inclusive retailer in 2017.  Target and H&M have also expanded their clothing lines to offer more fashion forward designs for plus sizes.

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