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Retailers Latch On to Petite and Plus Sizes

February 08, 2005|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Retailers, hungry for growth, are wooing women of all shapes and sizes, with an emphasis on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Old Navy has been selling some plus sizes since 2000 and petite sizes started showing up in Banana Republic stores two years ago. But parent Gap Inc. upped the ante Monday, saying it would open three Banana Republic Petite stores this month, including one in Los Angeles, and nearly triple, to 150, the number of Old Navy stores selling plus-size women's clothes.

Gap, the nation's largest specialty apparel seller, is covering its bases. Larger teens and women are a good bet because their ranks are growing. And petites are tempting because they're desperate to find something that fits and willing to pay full price when they do.

"Special sizes is becoming a growth vehicle," said Elizabeth Pierce, an analyst with Sanders Morris Harris.

Indeed, sales of both petite and plus sizes grew faster than total sales last year, according to NPD Group. While overall apparel sales were up 3% to $93 billion, the plus-size uptick was 5.5%, to $16.7 billion, and the petite increase was 3.7%, to $5.8 billion.

Further, in a recent NPD survey of 43,000 women, 40% said they had purchased plus sizes (generally defined as size 14 and larger) at some point in their lives, and 8% said they wore petite plus sizes -- giving them a double challenge as shoppers.

"It's a bigger market than people realize," said Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's industry analyst. "Retailers are beginning to realize that to grow they need to expand their product offerings."

Many already have.

Teen retailer Hot Topic Inc. launched its Torrid chain in 2001 to target young women who want trendy clothes in larger sizes. The City of Industry-based company now has 76 Torrid stores, 40% of them in California. It has tweaked its product offerings, shifting away from the edgier, punk-style offerings similar to those sold in Hot Topic stores to more feminine clothes to suit a wider array of young women.

Although Hot Topic wouldn't reveal sales for the Torrid division, Chief Financial Officer Jim McGinty said it was happy with the chain's progress and planned to expand by nearly 60% this year, opening 45 more stores "scattered through the best malls we can find throughout the country."

Discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Kohl's Corp. also have expanded their plus-size offerings, analysts noted, becoming savvier about what they put on the racks for women who don't come in cookie-cutter sizes.

Seattle-based Nordstrom Inc., which has long had special departments catering to small and large women, has made its plus-size clothes more fashionable and colorful than they once were, spokeswoman Deniz Anders said. Spring styles will include the current styles, such as "shrunken jackets," fitted cardigans and slinky camisoles.

"Plus-size fashion is mirroring what happens in missy fashion much more than before," said Anders. "Our plus-size customer watches the same TV shows, she reads the same fashion magazines; she loves fashion, newness and color."

If retailers have snapped to attention about larger sizes, it's no wonder. The average American woman in her 20s was almost 29 pounds heavier in 2002 than in 1960 -- and women between the ages of 40 and 49 were about 26 pounds heavier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As for petite customers, they are on much better terms than they would like to be with their tailors. But they've had a tough time calling attention to themselves, partly because people aren't getting shorter; the average American is 1 inch taller than in 1960.

Petite customers seem dissatisfied with their options, said Robert Buchanan, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons. Petites are still "underserved," he said.

Banana Republic customers have shown "great interest" in the petite sizes sold in about 23 of its U.S. stores, spokeswoman Kris Marubio said, and that prompted the company to try the three-store petite-only test. (The L.A. store will be in Westside Pavilion Mall; the two others will be in Boston and Seattle. Existing Banana Republic men's stores are being converted.)

As for Old Navy, it began rolling out plus sizes in 55 stores in July. Said Marubio of the line of clothes in sizes 16 to 26: "We like to say they have room for curves."

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