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Clothing retailers glom onto a new trend in plus-size fashion for teens

Chew on this fact: According to U.S. government agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of obese people in the U.S. between the ages of six and 19 has doubled in the last 30 years. Today, 13% to 14% of U.S. kids in this age bracket are considered overweight. While the health implications of these stats should not be glossed over, the reality is that an increase in the number of larger adolescents is creating a new market for apparel retailers. As kids, especially girls, move into their teens, many who reside in the size-14-plus club are faced with few enticing options at the mall--and some of North America's savvier retailers are now trying to fill that gap.
October 1, 2001

Chew on this fact: According to U.S. government agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of obese people in the U.S. between the ages of six and 19 has doubled in the last 30 years. Today, 13% to 14% of U.S. kids in this age bracket are considered overweight. While the health implications of these stats should not be glossed over, the reality is that an increase in the number of larger adolescents is creating a new market for apparel retailers. As kids, especially girls, move into their teens, many who reside in the size-14-plus club are faced with few enticing options at the mall–and some of North America’s savvier retailers are now trying to fill that gap.

This spring, City of Industry, California-based Hot Topic unveiled Torrid, a cluster of plus-size-only outlets catering to women ages 15 to 30. Hot Topic launched six test stores across the U.S. (in Boston; Omaha; Denver; San Diego; Brea, California; and Annapolis, Maryland) that offer women sizes 14 to 26 an array of fashion-forward clothing and accessories running the gamut between clubwear and goth.

‘There are no precise numbers available, but we think that plus-size shoppers represent a large segment of the population–no pun intended–that has not yet been adequately addressed by retailers,’ says Jay Johnson, senior VP of strategic analysis and investor relations at Hot Topic. Based on census data and proprietary studies commissioned by Hot Topic, Johnson estimates that 25% of women ages 15 to 30 wear a size 14 or higher, and he thinks that number has grown considerably in the last decade.

Over the past few years, the company also noticed an increase in customer comments (via e-mail feedback and in-store response cards) complaining that there are so few places for plus-size girls to shop, says Johnson. A year and a half after introducing a plus-size section in stores and on-line at www.hottopic.com, Hot Topic saw a ‘dramatic sell-through’ on those items.

The next step was to decide whether to open a stand-alone store. Though the company could have just expanded the plus-size sections, Johnson says that would have meant upsetting the merchandising balance of the stores, which sell to both men and women. What’s more, he says focus group testing overwhelmingly revealed that these girls wanted their own stores.

Located in malls, each of the six Torrid stores occupies 2,500 square feet–representing a larger space than most Hot Topic locations, which average 1,900 square feet. They also target an older demographic of women ages 15 to 30, although Johnson estimates that 50% are under the age of 20. By contrast, Hot Topic’s core customer group is made up of tweens and teens ages 12 to 19. Torrid’s merchandise mix consists of 25% accessories and 75% apparel, which is split between Hot Topic brands and well-known labels like Paris Blues and Z Cavarichi.

With no existing size specifications for junior plus-sizes, Torrid had to work with vendors to develop them, says Johnson. Since launching the stores last April, vendors have been eager to start creating products for this customer group. ‘They see it as an untapped market,’ says Johnson.

So far, Johnson says the performance of the six test stores has been strong, with sales increasing daily And though Johnson would not comment on the future of the chain, Hot Topic CEO and president Elizabeth McLaughlin hinted strongly that more Torrid store launches were pending during an August conference call about the company’s Q2 results (which saw 32% revenue growth for the period). According to Johnson, Hot Topic will make an announcement on the future of Torrid early this quarter.

Another company that has recognized the opportunity in plus-size junior wear is Montreal, Canada-based Penningtons Superstore. Last year, the retailer, which specializes in plus-size fashions for women, introduced a junior section for teens into its 117 locations. Called ‘un, deux, trois,’ the section offers two proprietary lines: Club Wear, which includes items such as black spandex shirts and sequin-studded bengaline pants; and Casual Wear, which offers everyday gear like jeans and sweaters.

Management at Penningtons, a division of retail conglomerate Reitmans Canada Ltd., identified the need for a junior section after witnessing a group of girls shopping in its teen-targeting sister store Smart Set. ‘Inevitably one or two of the girls would struggle to fit into regular sizes, but they couldn’t–they were plus-size girls,’ says Jon Plens, VP of sales and operations at Penningtons. ‘We realized then that there was no place in Canada to find suitable junior fashions for this customer.’ To date, shoppers have responded favorably to the section, which, having launched at 100 square feet, has since grown to an area of between 400 and 500 square feet–representing 15% to 20% of the store.

Beyond the size issue, both retailers say there’s little difference in merchandising apparel for plus-size teens. ‘Our Torrid customers want the latest cutting-edge fashions, and they want to shop for them in a place where they can feel good about themselves,’ says Hot Topic’s Johnson.

With prominent chains like Gap Kids, Talbots and Limited 2 also expanding into kids plus-sizes, industry watchers like Elizabeth Pierce, a retail analyst at L.A.-based Wedbush Morgan Securities, believe this sector holds major growth potential. ‘Plus-size kids eventually become teenagers, and a lot of them will maintain the same physique,’ she says. ‘They should have the option of wearing trend-right merchandise, instead of big, boxy, ugly-looking clothes.’

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