The perils of test marketing plus-size clothes

Jezebel is reporting on plans to introduce a plus-size line at the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue. Now, before you get super-excited, the expansion is only to size 14 across the board, though some lines will extend to size 20. But this does involve a lot of high-end labels that have a long tradition of avoiding even the lightest of the fatties like Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, and others.

This naturally sparked some questions from Jezebel on the specifics of this plan. Saks doesn't seem eager for attention, though, and only offered a boilerplate statement. Surely, someone somewhere is taking their bland endorsement as cause for the next great fat panic, but I'm a little more concerned about the reticence to promote this.

See, what's going on here is a bit of product testing. This is only being launched in one location. They see how it goes, and then decide how to expand. Its like Old Navy a few years ago when they expanded plus-sizes in their stores. Anyone remember how that turned out?

There is a fundamental flaw in the test marketing of plus-size clothes by retailers who've never offered them. See, if McDonald's wants to test market a new sandwich, they can rely on the fact that the people coming into the store are looking to buy a meal. Maybe they didn't know that the McNewwich was on the menu, but they are still there to get something to eat.

That isn't the dynamic here. It would be more like Victoria's Secret introducing a line of jeans for fat men. I might be the target audience, but at no time in my life do I find myself walking into a Victoria's Secret so it won't much matter. I'm never going to happen upon their awesome jeans, because I had no reason to be in their store. This can be combatted with a marketing campaign, but product testing often has little money for that. Word might leak out virally like this, but let's face facts. Most people aren't aware of what's being talked about on a few websites. That's what doomed Old Navy, I think. Without promotion, why would a size 24 woman have been in Old Navy to discover their plus-sizes? A few will hear about it online. Some might be shopping for others. But most of their potential customers just won't know about it and nothing can doom a product faster than ignorance in the marketplace. No matter how awesome your offering is, if no one knows about it, so what?

So, while its awesome that Saks will offer clothing in larger sizes, I worry that the intended clientele will never be stepping foot into Saks to discover this. And really, why should they?

So then the question because why these sorts of product launches are so consistently botched in this way. Is it simple incompetence or something more nefarious? I doubt anyone is trying to doom these lines to fail, but I also doubt anyone cares too much if they fail. A craven reluctance to be associated with fat people isn't an unthinkable motive. It may not be why they do it, but its an attitude which may still inform their approach.


Notblueatall said...

Good point. I sadly, missed the ON plus in store and only found out far too late to enjoy such a thing. I bought from them awhile, but when they charged for returns I dropped them. It's too bad. Staple carrying stores like ON can really help poor folks like me, their prices were good. *sigh* I could honestly care less about a fancy store like Saks, but hey, I'm sure someone will appreciate some additional sizing options...maybe.

Brian said...

Saks will never be serving the needs of most fatties, but they run the risk of serving none if their target market is left uninformed.

I just had to delete a rather hilarious bit of trolling who accused me of dating "bovines". If it wasn't "anonymous" I might have left it up just to point and laugh at it.

Buttercup Rocks said...

I sometimes think they do this on purpose, albeit maybe subconsciously. It happens in the UK too. They don't want to cater to fat people for whatever reason, so they deliberately don't promote these half-arsed forays into plus-sizes. Then, when nobody buys the stuff, (either because they didn't know it was there or because it's a rubbish collection of overpriced, frumpy old tat), they heave a big sigh of relief and report gleefully to base, "See! You were wrong! Nobody bought it! Can we just go back to offering fashion for normal people now?"

Also I'm slightly surprised. As far as I know Saks has a (prohibitively expensive) plus size department called Salon Z. It was still going ywo years ago when I last visited the US. Also, the NYC Macy's has a brilliant plus size department - around half a floor, which already carries Michael Kors and pretty much every upscale designer who caters to larger sizes. It seems hardly worth Sak's while.

Brian said...

I think that kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is at the heart of the plus-size fashion industry's reliance on using thinner models, too. They insist that thinner models sell better, but how much of that is because of the reinforced shame that has come from years of making fat bodies invisible?

I quickly checked, and I think Salon Z is a separate line where the new offerings will be a direct extension of their lines for thinner women. So, instead of carrying a separate plus-size line of clothes by these makers, they will now stock the exact same dresses they were stocking in smaller sizes in plus-sizes, either up to 14 or 20. It does occur to me that this implies some people lost at Saks right now who were not served by Salon Z but evidently also unserved by their main line since that's only now being extended to size 14.

Anonymous said...

Great point. What I don't get is why don't they just put these new designers in Salon Z, which while pricey is a nice plus section. I'm with buffpuff I think sometimes they want these lines to fail, so that when we fatties demand designers they can throw in our faces, "..in 2010 we gave you this and you didn't buy.."

Anonymous said...

I agree. I mean, I think the though it kind of paranoid but really its true--They just want them to fail. It's so ingrained in their minds that fat's bad, it's so subconscious they never get way from that mentality. And I mean really ingrained to the point where no one even knows that this is what they're thinking when they think it.

Meems said...

On the less cynical end, by going up to a size 14 in the non-plus-size section, they may manage to get more sales among inbetweenies, such as myself, who are often a size 10 or 12, but sometimes need extra room in a specific area (chest, hips, etc.).

I generally don't shop in plus size sections, because most of the clothing there doesn't fit me. Of course, non-plus-size lines often don't fit either...

Brian said...

Oh there is tons of potential for sales no matter where they extend the line. The question, though, will any of those people happen upon the clothes and just justify the product test. While a size 14 woman might not have been in a plus-size section, if Saks wasn't stocking that size before, I'm not sure if how they'll find the customers for it just by sticking it on the rack.

Its insane that their "regular" clothes don't already go up to Size 14. I'm baffled that they would have such a blind spot representing such a large segment of their potential market.

Anonymous said...

There are entire malls I never step foot into because I know that they have nothing for me. Literally, nothing. It is such an odd experience to wander around, wanting to give money to people for clothing, and to have them actively reject your money because you are fat.

William said...


Last year I got some great 5X Big Men's Shirts (extra great workmanship) from Land's End and this year their offerings seem to be in smaller sizes.


JupiterPluvius said...

Saks's Salon Z is really the go-to place for wealthy fat ladies in New York. My former boss's personal Saks shopper said that Madeline Albright and Liz Smith were among their regulars.

Perhaps these clothes target a younger crowd? Salon Z does seem to focus on the over-50 set. It is one of the few places to find off-the-rack evening wear in sizes 14 to 24 US in New York, though.

jen said...

"Is it simple incompetence or something more nefarious?"

I hate to be cynical, but I do believe they are not this incompetent.

The metaphor I will use is the young guy who is attracted to fat body types. Especially when these guys are young and insecure, there's a lot of "second hand fat shaming" they would encounter by openly dating who they're attracted to (fatties!). I've seen cases of people dating the fat person "on the DL," as a messed-up way to fulfill their desires while kowtowing to societal pressure/shame. These relationships always, always, always end badly.

I do think these stores know that the plus size lines sales will be tremendously hurt without the proper marketing--they're simply afraid of the "perception of the brand" if they were perceived as courting the fatties.

O.C. said...

I just went to the Saks website to check out "Salon Z" and I'm not bowled over. There's not a lot there that looks any different from the offerings at Lane Bryant or Roamans, maybe it's better made, but the drapeysequinybigflowersomarthetentmaker vibe is the same.

If this is the best the clothing companies have to offer RICH women, I think the situation speaks volumes. Fat women, you cannot buy your way into respectability. We will NOT offer you attractive clothing, no matter what.

Anonymous said...

This is a ridiculous battle. Fashion folks are business folks, they want to make money. So, either our money isn't good enough for them or they're too clueless to figure out how to get us to spend it. I'm guessing they're probably too clueless, because I'm sure they'd like the cash.

Anonymous said...

AFW, they don't want the cash THAT badly. I can remember back to the 70s/80s when there were all these articles about "aw, the poor fashion industry is losing money! Waaah". I was DELIGHTED. If they're going to snub me, who cares what happens to them? Here it is, 2010, and those nitwits still haven't learned a thing. Apparently, prejudice is Way More Important than making money. Capitalism, where are you when we need you?

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