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A Plus-Sized Opportunity

The plus-sized market is ripe for business opportunity if you offer high-quality products.

The numbers don't lie. The average American woman is a size 12 to 16, and 30 percent of all U.S. adults are obese. Meanwhile, London-based researcher Mintel International Group Ltd. reports the plus-size clothing market reached nearly $32 billion in 2005. It's no wonder plus sizes are making waves.

In fact, within the plus-size market, niches are cropping up for the underserved--including plus-size clothing for petites and pregnant women. "Each of [these groups] has a real need for stylish clothes in their size," says Candace Corlett, principal at New York City retail consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. "While department and chain specialty stores offer good selections of plus sizes, the selection in the niches of petite and maternity are slim pickings." The reason? There's just not enough traffic to justify devoting more than a few racks.

Natalie Weathers, assistant professor in the fashion industry management department at Philadelphia University, adds that over-40 women, including plus sizes, are craving more variety. This market segment "wants to wear age-appropriate clothing but have a hipper look," she says. Some entrepreneurs are responding with websites or boutique stores, offering outstanding service that makes customers want to go out of their way to visit.

You're not limited to these niches. The NPD Group also reports that one-third of overweight children wear adult or junior size clothing for lack of properly fitting children's clothes. Nor are you limited to clothing: extra-large products like baby seats, doorways, caskets, furniture and bath towels are also in demand.

Getting Started
How can you find the perfect fit with a plus-size business of your own? Keep in mind:

  • Be innovative. "Remember that "plus" is not actually a niche market in the United States," says Natalie Weathers, assistant professor in the fashion industry management department at Philadelphia University. "Avoid predictable, mundane design in terms of fabric and print, in the same way you'd avoid the predictable and mundane with a jet-set target-market group." That goes for any plus-size product. A predictable, mundane furniture piece isn't going to sell any better to a plus-size consumer than it would to the average slim Jim.
  • Do your homework. What is your target market? You can't just choose plus-size consumers as an overall market; narrow it down to a specific segment. For instance, do you want to sell to teenagers? Businesswomen? Brides to be? "Do not underestimate thorough and holistic market research," says Weathers. "Get the demographic and psychographic angle on your targeted customer."
  • Partner up. With more and more companies catering to plus-size consumers, the co-marketing opportunities abound. For instance, if you sell plus-size towels, why not partner up with a company that makes long-handled sponges? If you sell plus-size armchairs, why not partner up with someone who makes plus-size footstools?
  • Think globally. You're likely on a limited budget, and that means you may need to look overseas for manufacturers, since going domestic can be cost-prohibitive. This isn't as easy as it sounds. But there's plenty of assistance available. See our article "Finding International Manufacturers" for help in planning out this phase of startup.
  • Compete on quality, not quantity. Go for a high-quality product at a premium price, rather than trying to produce mass amounts of a product that's priced lower but may end up looking cheap. "You should be marketing it as something you can't find in a department store or mall," says Weathers. "Use the higher-quality materials--that way, you can justify the scarcity in terms of volume."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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