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Riding The Plus-Size Wave

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For years, Hollywood and the advertising media perpetuated a stereotypical image of women. As a result, many consumers have the unrealistic expectation that women are (or should be) poreless, hipless, silken-haired, high-cheekboned, size 0, 20-year-old goddesses. But is this beauty myth finally changing? Companies like Charming Shoppes, Inc., parent company to plus-size American retailer Lane Bryant, are doing their darnedest to see that it does. Lane Bryant was founded in the 1900s in New York, first as a retailer of maternity apparel and later as the first women’s apparel retailer devoted exclusively to plus sizes. Acquired by Charming Shoppes, Inc. in 2001 from Limited Brands Inc., Lane Bryant is part of the retail holding company’s strategic plan to pull itself back from the brink of bankruptcy. Now, 74 percent of Charming Shoppes’ revenue comes from sales of plus-size apparel.

 The future looks even brighter. The apparel industry defines plus size as 14 and up—today that includes 62 percent of American women. According to Mintel, the plus-size clothing sector rang up $34 billion in sales in 2008. While this shift in demographics bodes well for Lane Bryant, the increase in the plus-size market does not directly translate into heftier sales. Plus-size customers tend to spend less as a percentage of their total disposable income on apparel compared to women who wear smaller sizes. Most analysts attribute this gap to the fact that retailers have not done a good job of making fashionable clothing available to plus-size women. According to one executive, “People are more accepting of their bodies today, and I think there has been a positive influence with role models. Years ago, manufacturers were only interested in making low-end plus-size merchandise because they thought customers were always in transition. Now no longer.”

Lane Bryant is fighting this tide. With new product lines and promotional campaigns, the company sends the message that it’s not only OK to be a plus-size, but that women in this category can be just as stylish as anyone. Lane Bryant focuses on en vogue styles previously available only to more modestly sized shoppers. Its strategy includes offering larger sizes in the upscale Seven Jean Collection. It also includes an expansion into the lingerie category with its new Cacique brand.

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