BY DEBORAH YAO/The Associated Press
KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — Kathy Curtis waded through a sea of colorful camisoles, gypsy skirts and lacy tees at Lane Bryant, shopping for a deal.
The 45-year-old suburban Philadelphia resident can afford to be picky. As a size 20, she didn’t use to have as many choices in plus sizes. But more retailers are finally paying attention to customers like her — if she doesn’t like Lane Bryant, she can shop elsewhere.
“They could do more, but things are much more stylish than they were 10 years ago. Five years even,” Curtis said. Before, “they figured, give them a couple of extra large tops and they’re happy.”
As waistlines expand across America, fashionable plus-size clothes are proliferating and moving into the mainstream. In some cases, plus sizes are leaving the outer fringes of the store floor to hang next to “regular-sized” clothes as the average American gets bigger. Where they remain separated, plus sizes are being displayed in specialized boutiques like petites.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, is adding more racks of plus-size apparel in its “George,” “Metro 7” and other lines due to increased demand, said spokeswoman Linda Blakley.
And the larger sizes hang right next to the smaller sizes.
“You can shop all the lines in one section,” Blakley said.
Old Navy, a unit of Gap Inc., carries plus sizes in 250 stores nationwide, up from 55 stores nearly two years ago, said spokesman Greg Rossiter. Old Navy started offering them online in 2000.
“We recognize that the market is underserved,” he said. “The response has been very good.”
Kmart, a unit of Sears Holding Corp., hired a special designer for plus sizes a year ago. Around the same time, it also introduced “attention,” a missy and plus-size clothing line that only uses stretch fabric. Kmart said it’s always displayed plus sizes in the same section as other sizes.
“It is doing really well,” said June Beckstead, vice president of design at Sears Holding Corp.
The Kohl’s department store chain added plus sizes for its “Apt. 9” and “Daisy Fuentes” collections last spring.
Retailers who have long catered to plus sizes are getting into their second act.
This year, Liz Claiborne Inc. in New York is opening five “Elisabeth” plus-size boutiques. The designer, which began offering plus sizes in 1990, already has 28 such stores nationwide.
“Plus-size women are very, very loyal to brands. They have a lot of spending power,” said Barry Zelman, general manager of specialty retail at Liz Claiborne.
Charming Shoppes Inc. of Bensalem, Pa. announced last month that it was rolling out a chain of plus-size lingerie stores nationwide called Cacique. The stores will carry sizes 12 to 28 and feature larger dressing rooms with tri-fold mirrors for viewing at different angles.
The parent of Lane Bryant, Catherines and Fashion Bug already had seven Cacique stores as of mid-March and plans to open 50 stores by year’s end.
Retailers are expanding into larger sizes because demand has grown: Two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese today compared with 46 percent a quarter century ago, according to the American Obesity Association in Washington, D.C.
Among children ages 6 to 11, about 30 percent are overweight or obese, up fourfold from 25 years ago. Nearly a third of those ages 12 to 19 are heavy, with the percentage more than doubling during the same period, the nonprofit advocacy group said.
That’s why “virtually everybody” is looking to cater to the plus-size market, said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard’s Retail Consulting Group in Nutley, N.J. “That’s where the dollars are.”
But it took decades for many retailers to see the light.
“The stores did not want the plus-size woman to mix with the svelte and slender,” Barnard said.
“Bad for the image, they felt.”
Maxine Monroe, the 37-year-old publisher of an upcoming booklet called “Curvaceous Fashion Guide for the Plus Size Woman,” said retailers have taken this market for granted for a long time.
At least in the past, larger-size sections tended to be tucked away in less-visited parts of stores.
“It’s horrible, just horrible,” said the size-24 Philadelphia resident. It’s as if retailers were telling her, “’I’ll sell it to you, but I don’t want to see you at my store,“’ she said.
Size snobbism, however, is shrinking as retailers realize that outfitting the Rubenesque shopper is a growth niche in the mature women’s apparel market, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, a consumer research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.
From March 2005 to February 2006, sales of plus-size women’s apparel rose by nearly 7 percent to $19 billion, according to the research company. That compares with a 3.4 percent increase in sales of women’s clothing as a whole to over $101 billion.
Plus sizes are more profitable for retailers. On average, plus-size customers pay 8 percent to 10 percent more for clothes because they go on sale less often, Cohen said.
But as plus sizes become more mainstream, prices should drop, Barnard said.
That would be welcome news to 42-year-old Vanessa White, a New Castle, Del. resident who drove to Philadelphia recently with her family to shop for plus sizes at an Old Navy.
She said she pays more for her clothes, but thinks retailers should change their tune.
“The average is not average anymore,” White said. “The average is plus size.’”