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A nearly universal humbling experience: The scene begins as one gleefully heads for the dressing room with armfuls of clothing that look stunning on the rack. Behind the curtains in front of a full-length mirror, every attempt to squeeze into or swim out of each garment intensifies the frustration. One, maybe two items fit. Or worse, none. The expression, “size matters,� takes on a whole, new angst-producing meaning.

Shoppers at clothing retailers, department stores and malls across America feel painfully like misfits every day as impulse shopping becomes revulsion. Trouble finding clothes to fit properly vexes each individual who goes through the humiliation. But an entire population of clothing shoppers pitching a fit about bad fits has become an emerging cause célèbre for the $163 billion apparel industry. “Many retailers and manufacturers don't even realize what they are missing,� says Susan Ashdown, associate professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell University, who consults on clothing size and fit issues for major merchandisers. “When a woman goes into a dressing room and tries on five pairs of pants and only one fits right, she's only going to buy the one. It is a big problem, but it is a hidden one, because there is no way to track the loss of what could have been additional sales.� Studies show that more than one in three items of clothing purchased from catalogs goes back where it came from because of a bad fit. Overall, a nation with a bad case of the distressing-room blues is taking an immeasurable toll on the industry.

The apparel sector, like other consumer market segments, has grappled with the economy of late. Total sales in 2002 fell 2 percent from 2001 figures, and tumbled 7 percent compared with 2000. In women's apparel, the numbers are even more alarming, with a drop of 6 percent between 2002 and 2001, and 13 percent since 2000. Still, macroeconomic woes are only partly to blame for the apparel industry's diminished revenues over the past few years, experts say. Also credit a lack of attention to sizing issues for the poor track record, says Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at The NPD Group's Fashionworld research division, based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Consumer spending statistics on apparel over the past decade illustrates a clear trend. In 1993, households spent an average of 6 percent of total expenditures on apparel, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. Today, households allocate only 4 percent of dollars spent to clothing, while spending on industries such as restaurants and entertainment have remained stable or even increased.

“Apparel companies blame the economy and September 11 for our slump, but why then is it that of the seven industries we cover — including electronics, restaurants and housewares — apparel was the only one that didn't meet prior year sales in 2002?� Cohen observes. “It is because other industries have continued to create products that the customer wants. Sure, right now, people have less money. But they still want to buy clothes. They still want to update their wardrobes. They just aren't finding what they want, and when they do, often it doesn't fit. And if it doesn't fit, forget it.�

A stern indictment, perhaps, but apparel manufacturers and retailers must do better to keep up with the changing needs of consumers, and these days consumers are larger, more diverse and more demanding than ever. The size and shape of the “average� American consumer today is dramatically different from 60 years ago. Nevertheless, apparel companies still develop clothing lines based on the proportions of 1940s models. As poor fit and lack of comfort compromise clothes marketers' bottom lines, they are investing more into researching size issues and problems, a complex matrix of challenges ranging from new body hefts to an evolving zeitgeist with regard to normal, attractive and healthy appearances.

In fact, the apparel industry has teamed up with government, academic and research institutions to ante up $1 million for SizeUSA, the first-ever statistically representative census of American body shape and size. TC2, a nonprofit sewn products industry association in Cary, N.C., has fielded the survey over the past year, literally measuring the complete physical dimensions of 10,000 Americans from a range of demographic segments, using 3D body scanners in mall locations across the country. The goal of SizeUSA, which is expected to be completed in October, is to provide clothing makers with size and proportion readings of their target consumers in detail that was previously unavailable.

But some clothes marketers have discovered that they have had to go beyond physical measurements to satisfy consumers with apparel that fits. Demographic and geographic analysis of buyers' gender, race and ethnicity, and even education, now play a role in more accurately matching stocked inventory to customers of specific stores, in an attempt to reduce markdowns and increase sales. What's more, a new consumer attitude and acceptance of “living large� has apparel advertisers and their agencies paying closer attention to consumers' psychographic profiles, shopping behaviors and attitudes about body image so that they can strike a more genuine chord with their target audiences.

No single source quantifies what the industry invests in size and fit research, but industry analysts assert that there has been an increased focus on these issues over the past few years. Since the economy slumped, The NPD Group has noticed an increase in inquiries from companies about how size and fit affect shopping behavior, says Cohen. NPD research asserts that “good size and fit� is one of the top three factors influencing purchase decisions among clothing shoppers.

Mark Minsky, senior vice president of merchandising at The Doneger Group, an apparel industry consultancy in New York City, estimates that five years ago the industry spent about 30 percent of its time researching fit issues, and the other 70 percent on materials and other quality issues. “Today, I'd say it's more like 50-50,� he says.


Demographic and social trends exert an increasing influence on the industry's critical focus on fit. Poor eating habits, a lack of exercise and a lifestyle that favors inert behaviors of several kinds have contributed to the fact that Americans are getting bigger. Almost two out of every three adults today are overweight, reports the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). That's 67 percent of men and 62 percent of women, compared with 53 percent of men and 42 percent of women in 1980. As 78 million Baby Boomers age, this phenomenon is likely to become more problematic, as we tend to pack on the pounds as we grow older.

Just look at the sales figures. The most oft-purchased size dress today is a size 14. In 1985, it was a size 8. Plus-size apparel was a $24 billion market in 1996. In 2000, it had grown to $32 billion, and by 2005, it is expected to reach $47 billion, according to estimates by Packaged Facts, a division of The plus-size niche currently accounts for 20 percent of the total apparel market. And it's not just the women that are buying big: One of the fastest selling menswear products today is the expandable waist pant.

Adult consumers are not the only ones in search of larger, better fitting apparel. As many as 9 million children and teenagers, ages 6 to 19, are also overweight, triple the 1980 level. At 72 million strong, Generation Y's numbers rival the size of the Boomer population, so it would be prudent for apparel companies to watch their waistlines. Already, many department stores have added plus-Juniors sections. In 2001, Hot Topic, a retailer specializing in apparel and accessories for teens, based in City of Industry, Calif., launched Torrid, a chain of mall stores that carry plus-size clothing targeted at teen girls. Sydney's Closet, an online retailer of prom dresses in sizes 14 and larger, is another competitor in this arena.


Diversity trends present an additional fitting challenge for apparel marketers. In 1980, 20 percent of Americans were of a race or ethnicity other than white, non-Hispanic. Today, that proportion has grown to 31 percent, and by 2025 it is expected to increase to almost 38 percent.

But among nonwhites and Hispanics, the population numbers aren't the only figures growing. Fully 78 percent of black women and 72 percent of Hispanic women are overweight, compared with 58 percent of white women. Among children and teenagers, this trend is also noteworthy. More than a quarter (27 percent) of black teen girls between the ages of 12 and 19 are overweight, as are nearly a fifth (19 percent) of Hispanic teen girls, compared with 12 percent of the white teen girl population. The same is true for even younger kids with 22 percent of black girls and 20 percent of Hispanic girls, ages 6 to 11, being overweight, compared with 15 percent of whites.

Average height and body shape is also changing as a result of increased diversity. Hispanics and Asians tend to be shorter than their white counterparts. An average Mexican American female is 5'1" and an average male is 5'6", compared with 5'3" and 5'8" for the average non-Hispanic white male and female. The increase in diversity was one of the reasons petite clothing emerged as a niche in the 1980s, says Amanda Nicholson, assistant professor of retail management at Syracuse University in New York. “The big opportunity now is in petite plus-sizes, because there are many smaller people who are also getting to be very wide,� she says. Black women, for instance, tend to have larger bottom halves than do other women. According to the NCHS, the average black woman's buttocks, for lack of a better term, is 106 centimeters in circumference, compared with 102 centimeters for a white woman's derriere. Little data is available on overall stature or build, but that will change when SizeUSA releases its report, says Jim Lovejoy, industry director at TC2. “We are classifying everyone we measured into body shape categories, such as pear-shape, round and ‘tubular,’ a term coined in our U.K. survey, which refers to people whose chest, waist and hip measurement are all the same,� he says.


No formal size standard exists for women's apparel; a size 6 in one store may have completely different dimensions from a size 6 in another. Men's clothing sizes derive from waist, inseam, neck, wrist, chest and other measures in inches, so there's less confusion in specifications.

Most women's size systems can be traced back to a 1941 study that fielded measurements from a small sample of mostly white, young women in the military. Informal standard sizes emerged, but there was never industry-wide adoption. Instead, each apparel company created a proprietary sizing system based on target consumer characteristics reflected in their choice of a “fit model.� Larger and smaller sizes were created by increasing or decreasing the “average� fit model's dimensions. However, people do not get bigger or smaller in the same proportion all over their bodies, says Cornell University's Ashdown. Stores customarily rectified this problem with ready-to-wear garb by offering alteration services. But most retailers ceased providing such services in the late 1950s. “The apparel industry never had the information about size, proportion and body shape that it really needed to create better fitting products specifically targeted to their customers,� Ashdown says. “The 3-D scanner is changing all that.�

Ashdown recently put a 3-D scanner (which can record up to 200 body measurements in less than 5 minutes) to work for designers at New York City-based Liz Claiborne to help determine whether their current sizing systems are reaching their target markets, primarily women ages 34 to 55, in Misses sizes 4 to 16 and Women's 14 to 24. She scanned 203 demographically selected women twice, once wearing a pair of pants and once wearing only a bodysuit. “We found that target market body proportions are different from those of fit model and size grades, confirming that the current sizing system is not fitting the full range of the target market well,� she says.


In addition to their work with Ashdown, Liz Claiborne also sponsors the SizeUSA project. David Baron, vice president of quality assurance and technical services at Liz Claiborne, says that the company has made a lot of assumptions over the years about what each of its target consumers look like. “The new technology is finally making it easier for us to know for sure,� he says. “For instance, we know intuitively that some people are proportioned differently. We already know there are size 8s who are 5'2" and size 8s who are 5'8.� But the statistically representative data we will get from SizeUSA may help us to identify other sizes and body shapes that may be in demand. If we're missing a segment of the population because our clothes don't fit them, that may be another opportunity to create yet another brand.�

Meanwhile, at the J.C. Penney Company, headquartered in Plano, Texas, Andy Van, manager of product research and technology laboratories, also awaits data from SizeUSA. They too hope to use the data to revamp their sizing scales, especially to adjust to an aging consumer market. “By basing our size scale on linear measurements, rather than on a 3-D picture, I think we have been missing a lot of people,� he says. “As people get bigger and older, their size and shape changes. For instance, their chest to waist ratio often gets smaller, and our clothes may not be reflecting that accurately.� Eventually, the company plans to develop size patterns aimed at consumer segments, such as a line targeted at the Hispanic or black consumer market. “We hope to eventually get to the point where we can tailor clothing and sizing for each individual store, based on that store's demographic profile,� he says. “There's a lot of loyalty that comes from creating good fitting clothes. Many customers, women especially, will stay true to one brand if they know that every time they buy something, it will fit them properly.�


Improved retail tracking systems have also developed over the past few years, providing information about which sizes sell well in specific markets. Merchandise at the larger and smaller ends of the size scale tend to get marked down the fastest because they have trouble selling. The ability to pinpoint specific markets, or even specific stores within a market whose average customer is larger, smaller, shorter or taller, will cut down on excess merchandise. Mark Gatehouse, director of replenishment and category management for VF Jeanswear, a division of apparel manufacturer VF Corporation, says that the firm conducts extensive analysis of retail sales data and demographics to manage inventory replenishment and supply more precisely.

“Understanding ethnicity, gender and education levels enables a company to accurately predict the need for specific sizing in a market,� says Gatehouse. For instance, VF Jeanswear's recent analysis brought to light a connection between education and size. Their research found that shoppers who bought more large-size clothing were 14 percent less likely to have a college degree than the average consumer; shoppers who purchased smaller-size clothing were 47 percent more likely to have a college degree. “Two stores in relatively close proximity to each other frequently attract very different consumers and may require different size assortments,� he says. “We are always trying to balance not disappointing the consumer while still meeting the retailers' high return on investment expectations.�


While the design and distribution of better fitting clothing has become a bigger focus for apparel makers, so too has the marketing message that sets the standard about what sizes have appeal. The popularity of slightly larger-than-life media personalities like Oprah, Queen Latifah and Rosie O'Donnell and plus-size spokesmodels like Emme and Anna Nicole Smith have helped to improve the self-esteem of fuller figured women. And American Idol winner, 350-pound Ruben Studdard, is not exactly the vision of your typical boy band pop star. Yet, the American public voted for him, rather than for stick-thin Clay Aiken, for the coveted title.

“Our society is becoming more accepting of people of all shapes and sizes, and that is being reflected in the media we watch and in advertising,� says Brad Adgate, vice president of research for Horizon Media in New York. The apparel industry is also beginning to use this new “it's OK to be any size� attitude to its advantage in the marketing of products. Fruit of the Loom launched its “Fit for Me� campaign in April, touting a new line of plus-size undergarments for women, after extensive psychographic research, which included observed shopping trips and focus groups with fuller figured women. “We are always being pummeled with diet gimmicks, so you assume everyone is dissatisfied with their bodies,� says Diane Fannon, principal at The Richards Group, the Dallas-based ad agency that created Fruit of the Loom's initiative. “The majority of the women we spoke to have accepted their size, and while they don't necessarily want to be any bigger, they don't want to be smaller either.�

The “Fit For Me� campaign uses models of about size 12 or 14, who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and who appear confident and beautiful. Female consumers prefer this approach in advertising, says Jennifer Ganshirt, senior vice president, strategic planning at Frank About Women, a marketing consultancy based in Winston-Salem, N.C. A March 2003 study by Frank About Women surveyed female consumers on a series of images illustrating various types of women. The findings: female consumers consciously avoid brands that unrealistically depict women in advertising, and favor images of women who are average sized versus supermodel thin.

That's not to say that “aspirational� marketing, in which body images display what consumers may want to look like, rather than reflect what they already look like, is not in vogue. How else to explain the success of Victoria's Secret, which uses unrealistically thin women in its marketing? Participants in the Frank About Women study concurred that pictures of obese women were distasteful and unappealing. So what's an advertiser to do? “There's a happy medium,� says Ganshirt. “There's a big difference between showing someone who is a size 10 and someone who is a size 20. Customers are not saying that advertisers should glamorize being overweight. They just want them to recognize that average sized women make up the bulk of their consumers, and that the average sized woman is not a size 2.�

However, there's still a segment of the apparel industry that only caters to the waif-like demographic. While higher-end designers such as Dana Buchman and Ellen Tracy have added larger women's sizes to their lines, many have not, and quite frankly, will not. Marshal Cohen of The NPD Group says that, for the most part, the luxury fashion designers whose creations grace the runways of Paris and Milan couldn't care less about how the size and shape of the majority of consumers is changing. He recounts a recent conversation with one very high-end designer in which they were discussing the opportunities in plus-size apparel for women. “He said to me: ‘I do not want to see a woman wearing my product who is a size 12 or 14. It is bad for my image,’�says Cohen. “I thought, ‘wow, how disconnected can you be?’ There are a lot of people in this business who are far more concerned about their image than they are about a great business opportunity. And then they wonder why their slice of business is literally getting smaller and smaller.�

Size Matters

Shopping behavior and attitudes about fashion differ according to body weight.

It's impolite to ask a woman her weight. But one market research firm did, and found that size definitely matters when it comes to consumers' behaviors and attitudes about fashion, apparel and shopping. The nationally representative survey, conducted by Simmons Market Research Bureau (SMRB) and made available exclusively to American Demographics, is the first large-scale study of its kind to use a consumer's body mass index (BMI*) — calculated from the individual's reported height and weight — as a demographic variable.

Women who are underweight are much more likely than women with more meat on their bones to say that they prefer shopping with their friends, the survey finds. Women who are overweight or obese, on the other hand, prefer shopping alone or with their families. SMRB polled 9,882 adults in the 48 contiguous states between January 29 and May 12, 2003 for its biannual National Consumer Survey. But this time, in addition to capturing data on each subject's basic demographics like income, age, gender, education, race and ethnicity, they also asked about height and weight. Using these measurements, researchers converted the information into four BMI groupings — “underweight,� “normal weight,� “overweight� and “obese� — consistent with national health statistics. Beginning in August, SMRB clients will be able to use BMI as a demographic variable to find out how body weight factors into the purchasing habits and attitudes of consumers across the majority of consumer industries.

For our current story, SMRB gave us a sneak peek at their preliminary findings. Not surprisingly, the survey finds that people who are underweight (women especially) are the most likely to love shopping for clothing, to want to keep up with the latest fashions, and to turn to fashion magazines to help them determine what clothes to buy. This makes sense, considering that much of the fashion industry caters to them. But underweight Americans make up just 2 percent of the population, according to both SMRB and government estimates, so a look at the rest of the population's thoughts on the subject should be of some use to marketers.

SMRB data shows that the heavier the consumer, the less likely she is to say she really enjoys shopping for clothes. In fact, just 42 percent of obese women and 18 percent of obese men say that they enjoy clothes shopping, compared with 54 percent and 26 percent of normal weight women and men, respectively. Once in the store, however, larger women spend more time than their skinnier counterparts cruising the racks. Almost half of overweight and obese women (46 percent and 45 percent, respectively) say that they tend to spend long periods of time in a store browsing, compared with just 33 percent of underweight female consumers.

Heavier consumers are also more likely to go out of their way to stores that carry their favorite brands and offer above average service. For example, 43 percent of obese women and 37 percent of overweight women strongly agree that they only shop at certain stores specifically because they know they carry the brands they like, compared with 34 percent of underweight women and 35 percent of normal weight women. Larger men are loyal to stores that provide good service. Almost a quarter of obese men (22 percent) strongly agree that they only shop at certain stores because they know they offer good service, compared with just 15 percent of normal weight men.

— R.G.

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