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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  1. dosfashionistas says:

    Actually, I am seeing more plus sizes in mid-level sportswear (JJill and Coldwater Creek, among others) already. So you are right on with that trend.

    However, sizing is all over the board in plus sizes. And it is, overall, shrinking. Ten years ago a size 3X was about 58″ in the hip measurement. Nowadays, that measurement is a 4X or even 5X, and a 3X does well to be 54″. Only the companies that do only plus sizes keep the bigger measurements…even the cheapest ones of them are more generous in fit (just no value in the goods).

  2. ClaireOKC says:

    Holy Cow Kathleen – you hit this right on the mark. I’ve noticed an upturn in my custom clothing designs, but attributed it to just a rise in age and being un-sizeable for RTW. I didn’t know about the gap here between what the customer wants/will buy and what the manufacturer/designer has on the market or is putting on the market. But this makes total sense.

    I think another factor here – more of a detail of #2 is that sizing larger sizes means various shapes within that size which makes it even harder for the designer/pattern maker – do they offer a size 10A (small bust), 10B (medium bust), 10C (large bust) or a 10-1 for smaller on bottom and a 10-2 for smaller on top – see the possibilities get really mind-boggling. I can only imagine what this does for a designer trying to get something on the market that will work for all those size 10’s. One thing about designing for a younger, seeking-a-sig-other market, is that they don’t have as much individual (which really means bulk according to DNA – and let’s not count the possible infinite versions of that), shape as the older customers do.

    Great post – loved it as usual.

  3. I personally think that the world should move altogether from sizing towards simply indicating the height, bust/waist/hips circumferences in measurements units. But I’m dreaming here, because 1. there are two measurements systems in the world (I’m stuck in the metric one) and 2. it would be too much to ask my customer to have a measurement tape and to measure correctly those circumferences.

  4. Marie-Christine says:

    Ludmilla, these already exist, and they’re the current EU standards: Too bad nobody -ever- uses them:-).

    More generally Kathleen, I think you’re overlooking a couple aspects of this phenomenon. Yes, credit and more available money (even if virtual) does mean that more people want and buy more stuff, especially more clothes. Without going back to find you proper references :-(,
    I remember reading quite a bit about Japan in its economic heyday. It turned out that people spent a lot on designer clothes and perfect fruit and outrageously expensive bottles of booze for the boss because the normal household major expense, housing, was totally out of reach. When you can’t buy a place to live, and can’t even consider it in the far future, that leaves a huge gap of ‘free money’ that may as well be tossed into designer handbags. I think the US is fully into that mode now. My parents’ postwar generation spent it all on the mortgage. You were supposed to buy a house, you did, and you took the kids to McDonald’s for Sunday outing. Now young ones know full well they’ll likely be sleeping under freeway overpasses by the time they hit middle age, so they may as well look good meanwhile. Smart phones and $300 shoes.

    You’re right about a factor in the changing demographics of consumers being the development of the net, and the greater availability of formerly exotic stuff to formerly disenfranchised populations.

    This can be strictly on size criteria as you discuss, even more so as more of the population evolves out of the former averages. A friend of mine who wore 11AAAA shoes formerly only had 2 places in the world where she could buy them. Now, with the net, she’s got 4! So what if she’s never been to 2 of them? It’s still a 100% improvement, and she doesn’t need a plane ticket. Likewise, I’m now stuck in a podunk town where they firmly believe women’s feet stop at 9. Twenty years ago I’d have been going barefoot, or wearing shoes 2 sizes too small like I see many of the natives still do. But now I simply order my shoes from Netherlands and Germany like a civilized person. I think this is true more generally for all clothes.

    But there’s also the factor of more pleasant shopping. Formerly, a large woman (unless she sewed) had to be content with the navy blue tents, or whatever schlock Lane Bryant and its ilks deemed suitable for her. Not only that, but she had to endure the sneers of the ‘superior’ while she shopped, and was regularly rebuffed in the process. On a more general level, I was raised at a time where you had to enter a shop with a firm determination to buy, tell the salesperson what you hoped for, endure their contempt for your bad taste/physical deformity/financial status, be inflicted with what they thought you should get instead, and you rarely ended up with something close to what you envisioned. I was thrilled when I could go to a department store and see what was on offer, fondle it, and pretty much make up my mind before I asked for further help. This freedom to snoop around, free from the judgment of the seller, is even more heady on the net. Nobody knows you’re a dog, and as long as your credit card goes through you can buy -anything-. Moreover, you can find stuff for the most exotic tastes, and you can email people letting them know you’d be buying their stuff if they made it in your size (not the sales people who never transmitted that info).

    So it’s not just that you can afford to buy more stuff, but you can find stuff that corresponds more to what you want, and you can have a more pleasant experience at it. No wonder everyone’s closet is bursting…

  5. Kathleen says:

    I’m now stuck in a podunk town where they firmly believe women’s feet stop at 9. Twenty years ago I’d have been going barefoot, or wearing shoes 2 sizes too small… But now I simply order my shoes from Netherlands and Germany… I think this is true more generally for all clothes.

    But previously you’d said (emphasis is mine with hyperlink added)

    Ludmilla, these already exist, and they’re the current EU standardsToo bad nobody -ever- uses them.

    I think it is better for the market to determine the unique size characteristics of their customers than an institution plotting averages into a graph. If the EU (or any) standards had been used, you wouldn’t be able to buy any shoes that fit you.

    So it’s not just that you can afford to buy more stuff, but you can find stuff that corresponds more to what you want, and you can have a more pleasant experience at it. No wonder everyone’s closet is bursting…

    Exactly my point -but if we had standardized sizing, a lot of people would be going without and the clothing industry and consumers would be in even worse shape. There’d be a lot less for them to choose from.

    Formerly, a large woman (unless she sewed) had to be content with the navy blue tents, or whatever schlock Lane Bryant and its ilks deemed suitable for her.

    Indirectly, this is another reason why manufacturers don’t want to produce plus sized lines. They do the best they can for the segment of the population they are targeting but invariably, people criticize manufacturers for failing to divine their individual styling preferences. Lane Bryant was a leader, she thought the market wasn’t being served -at a time when the market was tiny!- so she did that the best way she could. She was dedicated and committed. It mattered to her. It still does to the firm. However, segments of the plus size contingent, rather than lauding the innovations and pathways created, criticize them. Manufacturers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t so it becomes much easier to ignore complaints because these are not coming from their intended customer. If a customer wishes a manufacturer would evolve to include their preferences, better results are attained by doing it positively rather than defensively.

    The more important issue is (returning to my points) that people have the idea that if they want something, it should be available according to their unique preferences when it is more likely they are not the intended customer for the product. Someone aged 8 to 80, male or female, fat or thin, could buy and use the exact same computer but they could never wear each other’s clothes. A computer or a car are not the same things as clothes but people have the same acquisition expectations -and it’s just not rational. The point of this entry is that just because someone has some disposable income, does not mean that having the expectation of buying whatever they want -is logical or even possible. Consider cross dressers as an extreme example. Do they get bent out of shape that women’s clothes aren’t sized to fit them? No, they know they aren’t the market. Otherwise rational people cannot seem to understand that just because they like something and have money to spend doesn’t mean they are that firm’s market. The only alternative is to do what Lane Bryant did and start your own firm to produce what you envision is lacking but I guarantee people will criticize you for it rather than sending productive comments your way. Anyone who makes it grows a skin.

    Not only that, but she had to endure the sneers of the ‘superior’ while she shopped, and was regularly rebuffed in the process.

    I obviously cannot speak to the sum of the plus size experience but based on my own, I would have to say that a lot of this is projection. I used to be morbidly obese. When I was fat, I used to think people didn’t like me because I was fat. There will always be injustice in the world, some people are not liked because they’re Asian, black, disabled, female, Jewish, fat, old, young, thin or whatever. It is no solution trying to get everyone to like you because there will always be stupid people. This means however unfair, you must derive the solution for yourself rather than let the stupidity of others define you. Why would you let stupid strangers who make you unhappy have so much power over you? Really, which is stupider? In my case, I looked around and saw there were plenty of fat people who were well loved. I had to face the fact that people didn’t like me because I was an ass. Saying they didn’t like me because I was fat was a cop-out. Even if it was true, copping out meant I was stupid to avoid the responsibility of making any needed changes in my life.

    Even tho I’m not fat anymore, I’m often rebuffed in stores. I think everyone is. The difference is, I don’t have something -obesity- to hang it on anymore. So, while I can presume it is because of the way I’m dressed (horribly) or because I’m female or whatever, that is their baggage, I’m not responsible for their emotional health. It’s just as likely the clerks are poorly trained or don’t care so why would I take it personally? It’s a commercial transaction. Deal with it professionally and stick to the known facts for redress if it is warranted.

  6. “I obviously cannot speak to the sum of the plus size experience but based on my own, I would have to say that a lot of this is projection.”

    Yes, of course. Being ashamed of oneself, and projecting that shame onto other people, can make going out into the world very difficult. The internet makes it possible to interact with people and conduct transactions while sidestepping the shame, which is a good thing.

  7. Kathleen says:

    It sounds to me that I could summarize what Marie-Christine is getting at as, that the internet reduces friction which increases the number of purchases.

    I’d agree. And we’re both lucky you have a gift for succinctly summarizing discourse to its key elements.

    If I were really smart, I would have thought of and said in my post that internet apparel shopping will only increase in an effort to reduce friction. lol. Interesting to think about…what has more friction? Buying something online only having to return it because it doesn’t fit or not having to go to the store for the widest selection? Maybe Zappos would be better described as a greased pig. Perhaps brand loyalty will increase on the web once sizing and fit are better known to its consumers? So many things to ponder…

  8. Grace says:

    Munro American shoes gives the # of the last. If you like one shoe, their website allows you to see all the shoes built upon the same last. Because all of their shoes are made in their own factories, the fit is very consistent.

  9. Jonquil says:

    “They do the best they can for the segment of the population they are targeting but invariably, people criticize manufacturers for failing to divine their individual styling preferences. ”

    The problem is that the manufacturer’s customer is the buyers for the stores, and the store buyers often do not actually listen to or represent the customer’s needs. To take it out of clothes, that’s why I buy books on the Internet. Not because I’m projecting a bad attitude on to the sales people, but because the bookstores I used to patronize had owners who were more interested in criticizing my taste than in selling me the romance/science fiction/adventure novel I was looking for. This happened at multiple bookstores. The key point for me on the Internet is disintermediation from sales people and buyers who claim to know what I want, but don’t.

    A smart manufacturer in the Internet age makes it easy for customers to tell them what they want. There are multiple businesses now offering made-to-order clothing; I hope they make a go of it. (So far, I haven’t seen one who offers my kind of style.)

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