Lately it seems like everyone is jumping on the plus sized bandwagon. With mainstream clothing brands like JCrew expanding the sizes they carry in store (and posting apologetic notes about it) to mid-market brands like Target creating their own plus line of clothing, brands and retailers of all kinds are trying to clue in to the needs of a dramatically underserved market. Since plus apparel is a rapidly growing area of retail — US sales of plus apparel rose 6% in 2016! —  it’s no wonder that brands and companies want to get in on the money to be made — and fast! But meeting the needs of plus women will be about more than just making clothes in her size.

Based on our research and work with plus women, we predict brands playing in and entering this market will face two key challenges: culture and consumer.

CHALLENGE #1: Culture is slow to change.

One of the biggest challenges facing brands entering the plus market is that culture hasn’t quite caught up. Plus women are acutely aware of the differences between plus and non-plus. Non-plus sets the standard in retail, fashion, advertising and inspiration. There are a multitude of sources that represent a vast diversity of styles for non-plus women — just flip through any mainstream fashion magazine on any give day. When plus women are featured, it’s “a thing” and there are only a handful of plus models that are considered to appear in mainstream fashion magazines. How many magazines does Ashley Graham have to appear in before she’s recognized for her beauty and not her beauty AND her size?

The current offering for plus women at retail further reinforces cultural norms that non-plus is the place to be. In most department stores, non-plus is prominently featured with mannequins outfitted from head-to-toe in trendy clothes with details and embellishments. There’s a huge selection and variety of styles to choose from and a wide range of price options. Plus is usually relegated to the back of the store, with a small and cramped space that lacks the same selection, details, style and pricing options. Worse yet, many stores have the plus section next to the maternity section. (No, we’re not kidding — have a look next time you’re in a department store.) This type of treatment makes plus women feel like second class citizens. They are clearly an after-thought, not a valued consumer. It’s the brand and retailer’s onus to take responsibility for their treatment of plus women, helping to shift cultural norms in a direction that’s more positive for plus.

The plus section is adjacent to the maternity section in a lot of stores.

CHALLENGE #2: All plus women are not the same.

Many brands entering and playing in the plus size market are looking at plus women as a group rather than individuals. This is a complex, dynamic group of women with differences in attitudes, opinions, lifestyles, and preferences. It may sound like a given that not all plus women are the same, yet this group gets treated by brands and retailers as if they all want exactly the same thing. One huge misconception is that plus women want to be smaller or are ashamed or embarrassed by how they look. Brands and retailers create clothes for plus women that cover and hide instead of accentuating and flaunting. Many plus women are completely comfortable in and extremely proud of their bodies, but are limited by the choices and styles that brands and retailers are providing them. Fashion for all women is a means of self-expression. Imagine how it must feel for plus women not to be able to express themselves and have brands and retailers that support a positive self-image?

Understanding how individual plus women feel about their bodies, their different life stages, and where they find inspiration will be the foundation for key points of difference for brands and retailers that want to speak to plus women. No amount of focus groups and surveys will paint an accurate picture of the differences in experiences and attitudes of these women. Really understanding this dynamic group means getting to know them on a deeper, more personal level. It means living with them, shopping with them, listening to them and recognizing their individual needs, feelings, desires and expectations. Understanding the subtle nuances will enable brands and retailers to take the steps necessary for plus women to feel valued, inspired and excited.

Imagine how it must feel for plus women not to be able to express themselves and have brands and retailers that support a positive self-image?

What should brands and retailers entering the plus market do?
As the rush to plus continues, it may be a good time for brands and retailers to pause for a minute to ask themselves some key questions: How can brands and retailers help to positively shift cultural norms in favor of plus women? And how can they get to know plus women on a deeper, more personal level to better meet their needs, expectations and desires? With a little focused effort, there’s a lot of opportunity for brands and retailers to minimize the gap between plus and non-plus and to provide a positive and inspiring experience for a group of women who have been overlooked for too long. 

Keep in mind, this isn’t a problem for just the plus market. All brands and retailers should get to know any audience they serve on a deeper level along with gaining an understanding of the cultural context that influences experience, desires, and decisions. This is the key that enables the delivery of a meaningful, unique, and memorable experience in a crowded market. 

Interested in getting to know the plus consumer (or any audience) on a deeper level?

We would love to help! Let’s start a conversation.