Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition

Yes, it’s another installment in my pet theory series, the myth of vanity sizing (links to previous entries appear at close); this one being a discussion of the influence of the evolution of consumer spending. Described most succinctly:

Manufacturers don’t know who their customers are anymore.

I concede this broad generalization is at least the size of the side of a barn. Humor me, let’s just say most large apparel firms have less an idea of who the end consumer is than at any other point in history. The reasons they don’t know anymore are influences that can be attributed to:

  1. The average clothes buying consumer is changing where and how they buy.
  2. How the windfall of low cost off-shore manufactured apparel has contributed to evolving expectations and subsequent disappointments.
  3. Why the unintended consequences of consumer credit to finance apparel purchases has created an apparel sizing problem for all concerned.

1. Explaining this first influence -the change in the average clothes buying consumer- is easy. The shocker is that older women are buying more clothes -at least on the internet but there’s no reason to presume this will not spread to Real Life. Yep, women aged 36-45 are the biggest online purchasers of apparel. That WSJ entry is gated so here’s the redux:

…traditional apparel marketing focus is owing to a disconnect between evolving spending and lifestyle habits. The majority of apparel purchasers had previously been younger women with more active social lives, partially attributable to attracting a mate. Simply put, it had been that the younger you are, the more clothes you bought. The move to marketing online seemed complimentary to the concept; it was supposed online buyers were the most progressive buyers (younger) but it turns out, neither are true.

The cut to chase summary being that older people are heavier. If the average consumer is heavier, then so will the average size of a given manufacturer increase. The problem being, there’s no bright line, it’s all so soft and well, evolutionary. There’s no pivotal event signaling that manufacturers need to change and when. Change too late and you die. Change ahead of the curve and you die too.

Pinpointing changes in sizing for online customers is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many companies still haven’t embraced web selling, they make it difficult for internet retailers to represent their products unless you’re someone like Zappos. Second, most retailers don’t collect customer age demography so they don’t have any useful information to pass upstream. Most of the data are collected from respondents who participate in studies and claim to purchase x goods on the web. Age is collected in these surveys.

2. How the windfall of low cost off-shore manufactured apparel contributed to evolving expectations is also soft and requires a bit of reminiscing.

Do you recall the very first time you were in a store and noticed a great top name brand that was being sold for an uncustomary low price? Perhaps you noticed because it was a brand you coveted (confirmation bias). This would have been about 15 to 20 years ago, give or take five years. In the beginning, people were very excited about it. They were happy to buy big names they previously could only have aspired to own. These products were the first of the big push coming in from off shore. Product landed at the loading dock with the 40% hang tags already attached. People were so excited, they didn’t care that the fit was a little off. Between price and the anticipation of acquisition, they were willing to overlook a small defect (like fit or diminished product complexity) because they wanted The Brand so badly. I remember that. It was exciting. Nobody cared that the back neck was cut too deeply so the front rode up into the neckline, it had a horsie dammit! And everybody wanted one. Me too.

Then other manufacturers saw how good that worked for The Brand and they wanted more market share so they did it too. That made people even more excited and happy. Malls and outlet malls became a veritable smorgasbord of brands they’d never been able to own before. After awhile, competing brands and lower pricing became the new norm. People acclimated to its cost but not its value. With all the brands being pretty much the same, people slowly became disillusioned at the lack of differentiation between them and so, expectations were raised. Namely because buying The Brand became commonplace and not special anymore, dissatisfaction increased. In the heady early days, fit didn’t matter so much and it was roomier than before to fit all those new customers manufacturers hadn’t had before but increasingly, consumers weren’t as willing to overlook the sacrifice of fit and good sizing anymore.

Some people, younger people, never knew any other way. For them it’s always been about brands. Young people today assume they have relationships with commercial entities, they think they are friends with stores. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the boundaries of what relationships mean, are stretching. For many old schoolers, a relationship is a one to one construct of reciprocity. They understand what “nurture people, not products” means. For younger people, these can be one and the same.

So what does this tell a manufacturer? I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but they were structured to give consumers what they wanted and fit and well developed sizing wasn’t their priority at the time. It was brand and its price. So, many manufacturers got rid of their pattern departments and let the offshore contractor handle it all. Why would they continue to spend for features their customers did not care about? In part manufacturers couldn’t size to fit their customers well because their customer changed, it was somebody else now. People who shop on price tend to be lower income. Lower income people are heavier so it only makes sense a manufacturer’s average size would increase to meet their new market demands.

The other casualty other than fit was decreasing product complexity and its affect on retail marketing. Since people were buying the manifestation of the brand -signaling with a logo- it was more important to buy a product of which the most salient feature was that bit of embroidery. Because the logo was the only differentiation, it is only logical that spending priorities were reorganized to promote the brand, burning the image of its logo into the consciousness of the consumer. The lowered cost of offshore production permitted spending being pulled from product development -reducing product complexity- and being allocated to marketing. Consumers are entirely missing the point if they think manufacturers have healthier margins with offshore production; they’re spending the same money or more than before. The only difference is the division of expenditures and which department gets it, namely marketing budgets could be increased with the reduction in production costs. Unfortunately, this priority on marketing has also created its own marvelous compendium of evolved expectations. Firms today are expected to spend more on marketing like everyone else does even if they’re producing domestically and with higher costs in product development.

3. That the unintended consequences of consumer credit to finance apparel purchases to create an apparel sizing problem, is the most pivotal  and least discussed of all these influences.

When brands became more commonplace and anyone could buy The Brand, it wasn’t as special anymore -and they’d gotten used to feeling special. So, people traded up and bought still better brands their friends didn’t have (yet). A lot of people went into hock for it. People started buying too many clothes. They used their homes like ATMs. Up and down the chain, the symptoms of this last influence were felt and manifest in a variety of ways.

The effect of easy credit permitting people to spend beyond their means cannot be negated. Easy credit has thrown the entire sizing construct into disarray if people want to buy products that were never intended for their demography. With the recession, the economy is undergoing a correction which continues to contribute to manufacturer confusion in the opposite direction as to who their customer really is and how to size for them. It’s not coincidental that handbag sales have skyrocketed. The typical value minded Wal-Mart consumer cannot wear a Chanel jacket but she can buy a Chanel bag courtesy of Visa and MasterCard.

The increasing protests of plus sized women who could not fit into the brands they coveted was another consequence of easy credit. Before, not having the money was the effective barrier. Once the limitation of budget was removed or was diminished, they felt they should be able to buy anything so they were upset they couldn’t. They were upset because not finding clothing in their size was a personal affront they interpreted to be directed against their size (sizeism). At best, lack of product was interpreted as a passive aggressive gesture on the part of the manufacturer to avoid this consumer segment. But truly, the manufacturer never made these sizes previously because this segment had not been a customer before. Again, there is no bright line telling manufacturers it is necessary to evolve to meet an increasing trend.

These are but a few reasons why manufacturers don’t know who their customer is anymore. If they can’t define their customer as neatly as they once did, fit and sizing entropy is the only rational expected outcome. Today, it’s not limited to certain lifestyles or income as much as it once was. The only damper on the acquisitive cycle is smaller sizing in bridge and designer brands. The most exclusive brands aren’t cutting larger sizes that the unintended consumer wears. And that again is why there is increasing resentment among larger size customers. They have the desire, they have the money, they feel they should be able to buy that stuff too. If manufacturers are having to cut for broad swathes of the market now, when they didn’t do that before, what are they to do? A consumer wants what they want. They don’t care that they were not the market segment in mind when a manufacturer made that dress.

Minimally, one could be left with the conclusion that manufacturers should expand their offerings to include more plus sizes. That is easier said than done -and a topic for another day. One could also suggest that manufacturers should improve sizing and fit and increase product complexity but again, this is not likely to improve any time soon. Manufacturers dismantled their product development departments. Rebuilding that infrastructure and allocating the costs commensurate to it are seen as a step backwards -and where is the money going to come from? As I said above, the consumer has acclimated to a new norm of lower cost but not lower value because their expectations are raised with everything being so much the same. They don’t want to pay more, they want more value for what they’re spending.

Please refer to the other articles in this series which offer substantive supporting material. Add to the discussion rather than backtracking to topics discussed elsewhere. It is likely that the exceptions you’ve thought of have been dissected in depth. For your convenience, links open in a new window or tab.
The Myth of Vanity Sizing
Fit and Sizing Entropy
Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop
Sizing evolution
Shrinkage and fit
Alternatives in Women’s sizing
Tyranny of tiny sizes?
The history of women’s sizing pt 1
The history of women’s sizing pt 2
The history of women’s sizing pt 3
Sizing is a variety problem
The birth of size 10?
Vanity sizing shoes
Tyranny of tiny sizes pt.2
Vanity sizing: generational edition
Vanity sizing: generational edition pt.2

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