As a plus-size consumer, I am used to not being catered to in stores, but as the winter months drew in, I needed a size 26 jacket. I assumed it would be pretty hard to come by but still, the weather called for it. I took a trip to the nearest shopping town, hoping there would be at least one high street piece out there that I could squeeze into.
Of course, there wasn’t. There are no plus-size-specific stores within a 30-mile radius of my home, so I started by visiting departments which I knew sold at least some plus-size styles. The biggest size I found on this particular day was a 22 at Marks & Spencer, which try as I might, I just couldn’t get my fluffy arms into. Upon asking employees whether plus sizes were carried in-store, they all told me the same thing. A variation of: "We do carry plus sizes! But only online."
Deflated, if not particularly surprised, by what was happening, I made a few final stops at charity shops and vintage stalls. Still nothing. At one particular charity shop, I was told that they are reluctant to keep donations above a size 18. "We just don’t see many plus-size people come in."
I went home, layered up a couple of cardigans, ordered myself a jacket from the ASOS Curve sale, and got on with my day. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened, though. It had been years since I tried shopping for clothes IRL – precisely because the end result was always the same: me, walking out of at least a dozen shops, reusable carrier bag full of a whole lot of nothing securely in place on my shoulder.
"Plus-size consumers shop online for everything," says Jaana Jatyri, founder of Trendstop, a trend agency that supports brands in aligning their consumer, collection and communications. "Analysts say that online shopping is even more popular among plus-size consumers than [straight-size] womenswear consumers."
"Their reasons will vary," says Petah Marian, senior editor at trend-forecasting business intelligence brand WGSN Insight, "but might include the fact that going into a store or a changing room can be a time when people feel vulnerable. A bad changing room experience or the frustration of not being able to find the thing you want can make online shopping and trying on things at home a much more comfortable experience."
In conversations with plus-size women, I have certainly found that most shop online. Upon conducting a survey of 100 plus-size womenswear consumers, all of whom are between a UK size 14 and 32, I learned that a whopping 89% shop predominantly on the internet. It isn’t necessarily an inherent preference, though. Only 23% of respondents cited the convenience of online shopping as their main reason for pressing the checkout button. Eighteen percent elaborated on other factors, the most common of which was the variety of styles available on the internet versus in store, followed by the ability to find more budget-friendly price points on the internet.
Fifty-five percent of plus-size women avoid in-store shopping not due to a lack of interest but because they know their size isn't available.
An immense 55%, however, avoid in-store shopping not due to a lack of interest but rather because they know their size isn’t available. As plus-size blogger Lucia Morris says: "At the moment, I'm at a size that isn't stocked in any stores and never has been, so I don't really shop in-store at all. I can fit into the occasional ASOS size 30, but not enough to warrant a trip to town in the hope I find something in any plus-size shops." Even plus-size-specific brands don’t often carry the higher end of their size ranges in-store.
What I found particularly interesting about my survey, though, is the fact that 90% of respondents would happily shop in-store if they knew their size was carried.
Stephanie Yeboah, plus-size blogger, author and digital content creator, agrees. "If brands were more forthcoming in talking about the vast body types they cater for and were more visible and transparent in communicating this, I'm pretty sure we would see an increase in plus-size shoppers on the high street," she says. "It isn't fair that we are omitted from the 'IRL shopping' experience that other non-plus-size people get to benefit from. If I knew that a store had available clothing in my size, I would definitely take a trip to the store to buy it. There's a whole high street experience that certain demographics are missing out on, and it's not okay."
When it comes to the fashion industry as a whole, there’s no denying that we’re seeing shifts toward online shopping happening across size ranges. As Jatyri says: "Brands and retailers have done their homework and realised the worth of 'the digital high street' as well as differences in generational shopping habits and the importance of social media commerce."
Regarding plus-size shopping experiences, specifically, she explains: "Instagram shopping is making it even easier to buy online without having to visit a physical store, while many plus-size retailers are capitalising on the almost 40 million UK Facebook users by channelling their marketing efforts into this platform. We’ve also seen a real surge in plus-size influencers and models [online] which has definitely given a popularity boost to the digital sector and is likely to continue."
Still, when shopping in person remains an experience in and of itself – one with the potential to bring friends and family members together for face-to-face interaction and bonding in an increasingly digital world – there remain plenty of plus-size people who crave it. People who want those trips to the mall with their mates; those Sunday afternoons browsing the new trends. Only 14% of my survey respondents said they are genuinely happy to continue shopping online, while over 85% noted that they hope to see more plus sizes in-store.
With numbers like these, it’s difficult not to wonder whether, when it comes down to it, the absence of plus sizes on the high street is a product of plain old fatphobia.
"It feels like other companies that carry 'full size' ranges (sizes XS to 4X) begrudgingly pander to us with the bare minimum while their straight-size customers are welcomed in with open arms and cash drawers," says Farmer.
Yeboah cannot help but think that "brands are embarrassed about catering for plus sizes. It feels to me that [they] think that bigger bodies may damage [their] reputation – almost as if it cheapens [their work]."
Jatyri confirms some of these suspicions. "Unless the brand’s USP is extended size ranges, the window mannequins will be 'average' size," she says. "Smaller size clothing is still generally perceived to have higher hanger appeal and is given primary positions." If brands continue to perceive straight-size mannequins and display clothing as more appealing, it would follow that many consider plus-size mannequins, plus-size clothing and, ultimately, plus-size consumers unappealing.
There are corners of the IRL shopping world that are changing things up, at least a little bit. "We’re seeing an evolution towards more plus sizes in store," says Marian. Last year, "Nike launched plus-size mannequins in its London store (highlighting corresponding plus product). This is part of broader moves towards brands recognising that their potential customer base is far more diverse (size, and ethnically), and ensuring that product and messaging reflects this."
She adds: "Good American will only work with retailers that stock its full range of clothing sizes – which runs from 00-24 – which has led to these sizes being stocked in Selfridges. Brands like this are leading the way around ensuring that their products are available to as many people as possible."
Still, Marian reminds us that "it’s important not to underplay the value of online retailers and their positive contribution to giving more women access to stylish options." We cannot lose sight of the fact that online brands, from big names like ASOS to independent ones like Plus Equals and Loud Bodies, are creating clothing for plus-size consumers which simply didn’t exist a couple of decades ago.
Independent plus-size designers and brands are often tremendously engaged with the community they serve, listening to our every sartorial desire and working tirelessly to create options we never thought we’d have. One of the most important things coming out of indie brands is arguably the availability of extended plus sizes, ranging up to a 5 or 6XL and beyond. Some indies, like Plus Equals and Smart Glamour, make clothing to custom measurements as well. Additionally, as many of my survey respondents pointed out, with the variety of plus-size shops online also comes a variety of price points.
Two things can be true, though. Plus-size consumers might be greatly benefiting from e-retail, but the desire to go to an actual store seemingly isn’t going anywhere. Marian notes: "As the average dress size in the UK is a 16, retailers do need to do more to serve the majority of female consumers in physical retail spaces."
Farmer genuinely enjoys the perks of shopping online – like "not having to carry tons of bags" and bypassing "loud, busy and/or crowded stores" when she’s really not in the mood – but, as she explains, there are some things you just can’t get online. "Like getting to try on the clothes to make sure what I’m taking home will for sure fit me," she says. "Not having to pay shipping or wait a week or longer for it to arrive has just as much importance to the shopping experience."
Indeed, when we plus-sizers find ourselves in the position of needing something on the same day – maybe an autumn jacket, a plain white T-shirt, a bathing suit, something to wear to a sudden job interview or a funeral – we’re pretty much screwed. Most of us would rather this not be the case.