Why hasn’t plus-sized apparel been an easy win for retail?

Discussion
Photos: Loft
Mar 25, 2021
Tom Ryan

The women’s apparel chain Loft has angered many shoppers and surprised retail watchers with its decision to stop offering plus sizes just three years after entering the category.

The company wrote on Twitter, “Unfortunately, due to ongoing business challenges, we have had to make some difficult decisions, which does impact our plus collection. Come fall, our size offering will be 00-18/XXS – XXL. We sincerely apologize for any disappointment.”

The exit led to significant backlash on social media as well as coverage of the backlash by major media outlets. One Twitter user responded, according to People’s website, Excluding half the market cannot be a good decision.”

Ascena Retail Group, the parent of Loft, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant and Justice, filed for bankruptcy last July. Loft’s plus line may have failed to deliver enough sales and/or margin as it shrank its SKUs during the pandemic.

Plus-size apparel costs more to produce because bigger sizes use more fabric and may require special manufacturing techniques. Alexandra Waldman, co-founder of size-inclusive label Universal Standard, told Vogue Business, “Factories often lack experience in making clothes of an extended size and looms are often not designed to make sweaters in larger sizes, especially if you’re looking to make something seamless.”

The plus-size market is growing at nearly twice the rate of the overall apparel market, according to NPD. New ranges from stores and emerging brands embracing inclusive sizing continue to reach the market to flattering media coverage.

A recent Business Of Fashion article, however, detailed the exit of once celebrated plus lines from White House Black Market and Mango and the challenges these companies faced in addition to margin concerns. These include being called out for not fully committing to sizing, failing to showcase diverse body shapes, tone deaf marketing practices and only carrying plus-size items online.

Loft’s plus line, however, appears to have been received favorably.

“I think the plus-size community felt truly embraced by Loft,” CeCe Olisa, the co-founder of theCURVYcon and Loft ambassador, told Yahoo Life. “And, based on the messages I’ve received from my community, I’d say that this change feels like an unexpected rejection from a new friend.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think is behind Loft’s decision to exit the plus-size business? Why does plus-size apparel appear so complicated to bring to market and find success?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"This is a lost opportunity for Loft."
"Charge a buck more. I’d pay it. “Special manufacturing techniques” is just insulting."
"It’s a business decision to enter and exit a market; however, exiting is always riddled with risk."

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20 Comments on "Why hasn’t plus-sized apparel been an easy win for retail?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I suspect that the troubles at Ascena have constrained Loft’s aspirations in this important and growing category. Beyond the reasons cited in the article, it’s not clear why this is such a complicated category, but what I do believe is that it is potentially a significant opportunity for any retailer that focuses on the category and remains committed to it. This is a lost opportunity for Loft.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

It’s a business decision. I don’t want to play the guessing game but at least they owned up to it and told people ahead of time. I don’t know how anyone can win in a time when we are looking to judge, castigate, and feel hurt nonstop.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

I believe many plus size people have lost the love of shopping. They have been given limited clothing options from a limited set of brands that frequently have size challenges and those retailers have been plagued by both COVID-19 (in-store) and increased online returns. This sector has always been a tough nut to crack but people need options. Perhaps we should change sizing altogether and have only unisex sizing as men’s sizes have always been for the most part larger than women’s. Made to order is an option for those that can afford it or can wait for the price to drop. Maybe there are no easy solutions.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I’m sorry, but this is utter BS. “Plus-size apparel costs more to produce because bigger sizes use more fabric and may require special manufacturing techniques.”

Charge a buck more. I’d pay it. “Special manufacturing techniques” is just insulting.

I had a talk about this with Tim Gunn a few years back. The problem also exists with petites, though because it’s a smaller portion of the population, it’s not mentioned as often.

It’s his view that you have to design differently for plus size and petite women, and he believes designers are generally just too lazy. So then, surprise! Women don’t buy what they make because it doesn’t look right,

So as Georganne Bender and I have discussed many times, make something more appealing than rhinestone encrusted tops with large animal prints and maybe the product would get bought.

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

Right on!!

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

We read each other’s minds this morning! I am so tired of this topic. And I am tired of hearing the apparel industry complain about lack of sales. Maybe it ought to stop designing for the image it is trying so hard to hang on to and take a look around. Beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

I’m on the petite size of the problem and totally agree – I’m thrilled if I actually find something in my size and stylish!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

RW’s next topic: “How to present the size “problem” in a believable, non-patronizing manner.”

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I think this says more about Loft’s challenges than it does about the plus size market overall. Over the past five or so years the plus-sized apparel segment has grown strongly and retailers that have made an effort in the space have benefited, this includes successful retailers like Old Navy and Target. In my view, that Loft hasn’t been able to make this work will be detrimental in the longer term.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

It’s hard to fault a retailer for acknowledging the complexities of their business and then making a long term profit driven decision. It highlights the importance of the supply chain. Design and merchandising are one thing. Execution at the factory level is a whole different conversation. And the resulting margin tells the tale. I’ve previously read about attempts to charge more for plus sizes. They certainly do in mens Big and Tall assortments. Not sure how extensively this was tested and why it didn’t offer a reasonable solution.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust
Paula Rosenblum and I have discussed ad nauseaum the fact that that apparel made for any woman over a size 10 usually involves animal prints or sequins. Sometimes on the same garment. The apparel industry can’t even decide what plus-size means. One of my first jobs was plus-size dress buyer for a department store. Misses sizes run from 0-16, plus-size is 18 and up, but many manufacturers have deemed 12 and up plus-size. How is that fair to a plus-size woman who wants to see what a garment would look like on someone who looks like her? The plus-size market is growing at twice the rate of other apparel, yet the industry doesn’t know how to make garments in larger sizes. QVC knows how to dress plus-size women, ask its buyers how they do it. QVC sizes range from XXS to 3X, the garments fit, and cost the same regardless of size. Loft wasn’t ever all in with plus-size apparel. It isn’t fair to get this customer excited about the fashion or the 40-60 percent… Read more »
Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Loft’s decision foregoes opportunities in inclusivity and, as recent studies show, our extra pandemic padding.

The economic reality of bankruptcy forced Loft to cut somewhere. High variable material costs, like fabric, made the plus-size segment an easy target for cost reduction. Focusing on standardized sizes could help Loft achieve superior cost savings.

A genuine corporate commitment to inclusivity improves commercial success for plus-sized brands. That’s why brands like ASOS, ThirdLove and Target’s All In Motion line are well positioned to capitalize on the plus-size market’s enviable growth rate.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

When you target a segment, you need to design and manufacture appealing products with value for those customers. It’s a business decision to enter and exit a market; however, exiting is always riddled with risk. When you actively market to and embrace a neglected segment then pull the plug, customer backlash must be expected. Given NPD’s growth projection for the plus-size segment, this appears to be another missed opportunity.

David Adelman
BrainTrust

Running a successful retail operation is not always about the bottom line. Many public companies fall into this trap when they become beholden to their shareholder rants and lose focus on their goals. For Loft, this decision was pure stupidity, a shoot from the hip action which instantly became a PR nightmare. What did they expect anyway? Today it’s all about “inclusion,” not separating certain groups, so they feel like pariahs. It’s a simple strategy, include everyone in your marketing. In addition to this, the plus-size market is growing rapidly. Sure, it costs more to produce these sizes, but either find a way to produce it cheaper or spread the increased category cost across the entire line. Simple.

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

I would assume people will be willing to pay a premium for well-fitting clothes. Loft’s loss will be a gain for Amazon’s “Made for you” business and the likes of those who are able to personalize and customize at low cost using a configure-to-order approach (which Dell was famous for) instead of a higher cost made-to-order approach.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

The apparel industry has always had a challenge with extended sizes – being a former merchant, I can tell you that brands hardly offered plus or petite sizing and if they did, it was minimal in size ranges and product choices.

The challenge is with leadership. They need to push vendors, makers, and manufacturers to change the way product is made. We are stuck using pre-determined size ranges and size scales when buying apparel and brands want to invest in only the sizing that sells the best. Whether it actually fits or not is a whole other conversation, but the offering to the merchant has been far from diverse or inclusive.

Once leadership teams push for inclusivity, size scales won’t need to be in a preset model. Profitability is the main driver of the lack in sizing. Brands need to start listening to what customers actually want instead of shutting off an entire market demographic.

Shikha Jain
BrainTrust

Fashion/apparel brand research shows that body image positivity ranks highly along with fair labor and trade practices and sustainable materials and manufacturing. Younger consumers, in particular, look for and shop at brands that mirror their own values which are often driven by social causes across many dimensions. In addition, research also points to comfort and fit as being the top purchase drivers for apparel. Combine both of these points — body positivity and good fit/sizing — and the business decision going forward should be on creating brands that are inclusionary to win overall.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

“Plus-size apparel costs more to produce because bigger sizes use more fabric.” Come on! That has to be the silliest rationale ever offered up here … material is a small portion of the cost of an item (I’m less familiar with the specifics of knitting machines and other equipment, but those explanations don’t sound much better).

That having been said, I think economics lies at the heart of the issue: scale IS important in pricing, since fixed costs are amortized over a larger number of items and inventory decisions are easier to make (i.e. stocking 10 extra pieces is insignificant if you carry 1,000, not so if you only carry 5). The tweeter’s claim that this is “half the market” is assuredly wrong.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

This is clearly a strategy that requires product differentiation through target market segmentation. Plus-sized apparel is a narrow part of the market, and yet still requires well-fitting clothes that many plus-sized people may want, or may not want. Add to this the increased amount of inventory and the costs required to sell this and this category already answers the question why it is not an easy win at retail.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

The problem with declaring you are eliminating a product range due to lack of sales is that it doesn’t distinguish between whether the market size was too small, or the product didn’t meet the market segment’s needs. In this case, all the data I’ve seen points to what the apparel industry calls “plus-size” (which, frankly, is such a terrible term for this segment) being a fairly large, underserved segment. If Loft sales in this size range were too low to sustain, maybe Loft should consider if they made a desirable product to this customer! I suspect that is where the problem really was, and they just don’t want to invest in delivering a better product.

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Braintrust
"This is a lost opportunity for Loft."
"Charge a buck more. I’d pay it. “Special manufacturing techniques” is just insulting."
"It’s a business decision to enter and exit a market; however, exiting is always riddled with risk."

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