On a scale of one to 10, Kmart is giving its shoppers an 18, and it’s likely overdue.
When the low-priced chain in early September extended every component of women’s apparel, from socks to skirts, into plus sizes, it did so with a great deal of insight. Not only did it extend sizes in all clothing categories; it also bucked a merchandising convention and integrated them with other sizes throughout the store, as well as in designated spots.
In making this investment, Kmart is recognizing the market validity and substantial lucrative potential of a consumer base long neglected by more upscale retailers and brands. The sales of plus-size apparel in the U.S. rose 17% from 2013 to 2016, to $20.4 billion from $17.4 billion, according to the NPD Group. Yet many mainstream retail brands, including mid-scale to luxury chains, have had fickle relationships with the category, often testing but not committing to a full-scale, permanent effort.
“Millions of our members shop in extended sizing apparel and we wanted to take action,” Kelly Cook, Kmart’s chief marketing officer, wrote in an email. “We’re the only U.S. retailer to do this. In fact, 22% of Kmart’s apparel members are ‘Plus Active’ shoppers. They are very loyal: Over 32% shop 11 times or more a year.”
Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and even Macy’s should take note. Looking and feeling great doesn’t require being a size zero or six. By extending and integrating the range of size offerings throughout their stores, they could extend their own potential by helping to eliminate the big-size stigma.
Luxury’s Slim Miss
Kmart’s embrace of the plus-size market is likely an effort to boost its performance. Since 2012, its store numbers have been reduced to 482 from 1,305, and parent Searsrecently announcedit would shutter 28 additional stores this year.
Importantly, Kmart’s efforts go beyond size. It completely changed the messaging around the segment, deep-sixing the term “plus size” and replacing it with “Fabulously Sized.” In doing so, it has removed the need to physically designate the clothing; it can be racked alongside the size sixes and 10s.
“When we reached out to our members on social media, they told us we needed to have a better assortment and that we should call it something different,” Cook said. “They absolutely love this whole mantra of ‘Fabulously Sized.’”
It’s important to note that Kmart even asked. Higher-priced brands may not be doing the same, considering that just 0.1% of all premium and luxury apparel is plus size, according to Edited, a retail analytics company with offices in New York, London and Melbourne.
Katie Smith, a senior retail analyst at Edited, believes plus-size apparel represents one of the most promising opportunities in retail, but she said there is a misconception that plus-size lines should have a different narrative than other clothing.
“In fact, the messaging can, and should, be the same,” she said. “These factors may have acted as deterrents, but that’s something the industry needs to move beyond.”
What She Wants: Style, Comfort
Enter Fabulously Sized. Not only did Kmart listen to its shoppers; it listened to women who were not brand-loyal.
Kmart conducted a nationwide survey of female consumers including, specifically, non-Kmart shoppers. It then analyzed its data brand by brand to design its collections. Among the findings, plus-size women seek clothing that is comfortable as well as fashionable, basic but also classic.
“Knowing what they liked more (fit, comfort, style), we develop our collections according to what they really want,” Cook said. “We also tested our brand statement, ‘Be whoever you want to be,’ and more than 90% loved it (members and non-members).”
Here are three points upscale brands should take away from Kmart’s Fabulously Sized move:
- Invite your shoppers to vent: All shoppers want to be heard, whether they’re spending $10 or $1,000. Retailers should be there for them and ask them to share specific pain points that interfere with that brand experience. Kmart relied on social media and other feedback. Members of loyalty programs may be invited to private surveys (with a reward for incentive), or special retail panels can be established for long-term feedback.
- Words matter: Messaging is a crucial element of the retail experience, and for a long time the language targeted toward plus-sized women (outside of specialty stores) has been unremarkable. By rebranding a generations-old, stodgy clothing segment into something fresh and positive, Kmart recognizes the shoppers who buy from that department as remarkable, valuable and worthy of one-to-one attention.
- Change with your shoppers: Retailers can have a tendency to think of what their shoppers want from the perspective of their own aisles. Instead, they should consider what the shopper wants from a blank slate, or even from a competitor’s aisles. Accommodating a major market segment could require a wholesale change in merchandising. If so, that is likely a step in a profitable direction — it indicates the segment may have been overlooked.
Lastly, retailers should recognize that if they limit fashion to a small range of sizes, they are limiting their market. As Cook put it: “Fashion has no size.”
“Our goal with this campaign is to celebrate all women regardless of their size, age or shape,” she said. “Because fashion is ageless, shapeless and weightless — we want to empower women to embrace their individuality.”