Why Don’t “Size-Inclusive” Brands Carry Plus Sizes In Stores?
Inside the great plus-size debate
Update: In May, it was announced that Old Navy would scale back Bodequality. “We have not seen the expected demand for extended size products in our stores," the brand wrote in a statement provided to Refinery29. "As such, [we] will be further realigning our in-store inventory later this year to better meet demand.”
This story was originally published on March 23, 2022.
When it pertains to size-inclusivity in fashion, the truth is harrowing: Inequality continues to run rampant through the industry today. For plus-size shoppers, that often means celebrating a brand’s expansion into extended sizes, but questioning whether or not those garments will be available to shop in-store, or online-only as has long been the case. As any plus-size consumer who has waited outside a fitting room for their thinner friends to exit or ordered six pairs of jeans online in hopes that one would work knows, this feeling can be incredibly othering.
For the 68% of American women who wear a size 14 or larger, it has been exciting to see that sizing has somewhat increased, particularly amongst national retailers. Among the brands to do so is Athleta, which had a personal impact on shopper Marley Blonsky.
“The first time I got to go to Athleta and try on the same clothes as my friend at the same time I legit cried,” she shared on Twitter. “For years I've been the fat friend who had to go to Lane Bryant or Torrid, while everyone else went to the cute shops.”
By and large, however, witnessing a full extended size range in stores versus online-only is a rare sight. Many may argue that this is driven solely by fatphobia and bias. And while that is true to an extent, there are other reasons that contribute.
“It’s an issue of inventory allocation and distribution,” says creative consultant and brand strategist Nicolette Mason. “Especially for brands early in their size expansion, the demand does not necessarily yet correlate to their current inventory. It’s a complicated logistics issue and something that often gets lost in the consumer-facing conversation.”
Say a popular national brand with 50 in-person stores makes an investment into extended sizes. Of the newly launched 20 plus-size pieces, they order each garment in qualities of 100. Distributing that arrangement equally would mean only carrying two garments of each size per store.
While this begs the question of why don't brands just make more clothing to distribute, the initial decision to carry plus sizes in-store is often not a one-and-done, but rather, a first step in the journey toward establishing a customer base that will let plus thrive in all markets nationally. Mason explains that this leads some brands to assign full-size runs to only their flagship locations, with shoppers outside of those cities having to resort to online-only for the time being.
It’s an issue of inventory allocation and distribution.
Consider Old Navy, which made a splash in August 2021 when it announced Bodequality, an initiative that would bring sizes 0 to 28 into all stores (among other equality-driven rollouts). “Democracy of style is so important to us, but equally important is the democracy of service, and so when you walk into an Old Navy store, you should feel included no matter what size you wear,” Alison Partridge Stickney, head of women’s and maternity merchandising at Old Navy, told Vogue.
The decision was a first of its kind, with affordable pricing being a huge selling point. However, according to the same Vogue article, Old Navy’s new dedication to plus-sizes was years in the making, one that required a major financial investment. (Interestingly, Old Navy’s kept one size — 30 — online-only. The brand did not respond to a request for comment regarding the reasoning for that at the time of publication.)
But Old Navy and rue21 — which, beginning last year, started carrying plus sizes in 454 stores, 70% of the chain's physical locations, nationally — are just a few of the fashion spaces that have committed to offering the same level of size inclusivity in stores as they do online.
Brands like Reformation have pleased plus-size customers with their fashion-forward assortments but puzzled many with their lack of in-store offerings. Since launching its extended-size range back in 2018, the question of “when will it be in stores?” is on many peoples’ minds. Turns out, soon.
“We recently brought a full-size range of our signature styles to Reformation stores in our top markets to test it with our customers,” the brand tells Refinery29 via email. “While the response has been slow, we recognize the work is on us to continue to raise awareness on in-store size availability to build consistency so shoppers know what to expect moving forward.”
Reformation understands an important point: The work is on the brand here. For too long, fashion has forced plus-size customers to prove their worth, rather than follow a traditional business model where it is the brand’s responsibility to market to their customers and prove their company’s worth. Finally, it appears, the pendulum has begun to shift.
The plus customer has historically been sent to the back of the store or the basement — just in the most hideous and inaccessible places.
Katie Murphy, 11 Honoré's Head of Sales
This conversation exists within plus-size-only brands as well, including Torrid which, in the past four months, have begun to expand their size 6 offerings in-store (previously, the brand offered sizes 00–6 online, which is equivalent to sizes 10–30, and sizes 00-5 in-store). In an emailed response to Refinery29, the brand said that it spent the holiday season analyzing its web data to see which size shoppers live in which regions. They then used that to determine which stores would be sent additional garments in a size 5, and which would then receive size 6 items.
“While store size does play a role into what is stocked in that location, we also have to consider performance across collections, styles or categories,” the brand shared. “This performance is not only in reference to the actual store location, but also what we are seeing our customer buy online in that particular area.”
While each of Madewell’s 144 stores across the U.S. carries “key” denim styles in the full-size range, which goes up to a size 28/4X, only 10 locations carry the plus-size line in all denim styles. While the brand points to physical space — which, in some cases, would need to double to accommodate the full plus-size range — as a barrier, it says that more stores will follow suit throughout the year. What makes Madewell's current setup notable though is that the extended sizes are carried alongside straight-size offerings as opposed to in a separate section, as has long been the norm and a source of frustration for consumers who had to shop separately from their friends within the same space.
“Right now when you walk into those select stores, the plus product will be throughout the store,” says Anne Crisafulli, SVP head of merchandising. “There’s not a special section.”
This practice is something Emma Grede, co-founder and CEO of Good American, has pushed for since first talking to Nordstrom, which carries the brand’s straight- and plus-size offerings together in-store, in 2016.
“I outlined the opportunity to serve a customer that wasn’t currently shopping at Nordstrom and was super upfront and clear about our priorities,” she says. “This essentially meant they would have to re-merchandize their women’s section — and we understood how huge of an ask that was — but it was non-negotiable for us. The undertaking proved to be a success that inspired Nordstrom to rethink their sizing merchandising strategy across all stores and all brands nationwide.”
“The plus customer has historically been sent to the back of the store or the basement — just in the most hideous and inaccessible places,” says Katie Murphy, the brand’s head of sales. “We were pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to get front and center placement in [Nordstrom’s] New York flagship store.”
If you really want to cater to your customer, you have to be dedicated.
Julian Hayman, Johnny Bigg GENERAL MANAGER
Johnny Bigg, an international brand for big and tall men, has taken this further within the New Zealand and Australia stores, now bringing that knowledge to their expansion into the U.S. market. Not only has the brand been able to carry its full-size range, but it has tailored its in-store experience to be more plus-friendly, with dress rooms that are more spacious than the ones found at traditional retailers.
To support the stocking of their full range, the brand’s physical stores follow a strict distribution template, replenishing sizes three to four times a week when necessary. All of it is possible because of how often they’re communicating directly with the customer in each of those locations, knowing what they need and how often the stock may run out.
Distribution, store size, qualities — all of it answers the “why.” What’s left for many brands, however, is the “when.” As more dive into the plus-size market, hopefully, the gap between online and in-store offerings can start to lessen. Because it’s that gap and the lack of education that forms out of it that prevents positive momentum from continuing to roll out.
“It’s ongoing [journey], and that’s why there’s not a lot of players doing it,” says Julian Hayman, general manager of Johnny Bigg. “If you really want to cater to your customer, you have to be dedicated.”