When Nike launched its first plus-size line of activewear in March, a certain dark underbelly of the social media sphere decried it as a tacit endorsement of obesity. “Thought Nike was an athletics clothing company. Should they not be promoting a healthy lifestyle?” one such underbelly wrote on Facebook at the time. “These lumps don’t look like they do anything healthy or athletic.”
No matter that, to actually get in shape, an obese woman might need a sports bra and a pair of leggings. The message was clear: Fat people should wear burlap sacks until such a time as they are not fat, at which point they are free to resume buying overpriced combinations of mesh and spandex with the rest of humanity.
Plus-size women have been getting a watered-down version of this message for years. Research shows that the average American female is between sizes 16 and 18, which is right above where “plus-size” begins. As Quartz’s Marc Bain put it, that makes “the average American woman part of a special category in the eyes of many retailers.”
That special category remains wildly underserved. Most designers top out around size 12, as do many mainstream brands. A 2016 Bloomberg analysis found that just 8.5% of dresses on Nordstrom.com were available in extended sizes; for J.C. Penney it was 16%. A separate small study found that 37% of plus-size women wear men’s clothing to exercise, presumably for lack of better options.
But there is perhaps no better example of this disconnect than actress and comedian Leslie Jones, who tweeted last June that no designers would fit her for a dress to wear to the premiere of Ghostbusters. Designer Christian Siriano, who has made a habit of advocating for diversity of size in fashion, ultimately stepped in.
— The Source Magazine (@TheSource) July 11, 2016
Meanwhile, Amazon has spent the past few years making plain its intention to get into clothing. The company has introduced thousands of fashion products, launched a half-dozen private labels, and is even coming for underwear. Traditional retailers are already feeling the impact: Last year, Amazon claimed just $3.4 billion of the $200 billion US apparel market, according to data from One Click Retail; but while overall apparel sales grew 3% over 2015, Amazon’s were up 25%.
The plus-size market sits comfortably in this gap between Amazon’s goal of disrupting clothing sales, and traditional retail’s refusal to serve bigger bodies. And it’s a huge market: According to NPD Group, sales of women’s plus-size clothing (defined as sizes 12+) hit $21.4 billion last year, up 6% over 2015. Plus-size women are also increasing their spending on clothes faster than straight-size shoppers, and studies consistently show they would be willing to spend even more if given more options. There is also a robust community of plus-size fashionistas and bloggers capable of elevating brands through word of mouth.
There are many obvious reasons Amazon could make waves with a segment of highly engaged American shoppers: It already owns about 44% of the US e-commerce market, and nearly half of US households already have Amazon Prime. Traditional retailers have also suggested that the logistics of designing clothes in extended sizes are excessively complicated (🙄)—if that is the case, well, Amazon happens to specialize in logistics.
But the e-commerce giant has also made some specific moves that could give it a leg up in the plus-size world:
- Amazon understands underwear. Intimates are convenient to buy online and awkward to buy in person, which is likely why Amazon has had such success selling them. Capitalizing on that convenience/comfort combo could also help the company court plus-size women who find IRL shopping too much of a hassle.
- Amazon understands fit. Fit issues are among the top reasons customers return clothes, which may be why Amazon filed a patent last year for a 3D-modeling system that could make sizing recommendations to users. If successful, it could significantly reduce returns.
- Amazon understands supply and demand. Earlier this year, Amazon was granted a patent for an on-demand apparel-manufacturing system that would let it make clothes only once orders have been placed. This could be a huge help for shoppers consistently stymied by retailers’ bounty of size 2s, and dearth of size 16s.
- Amazon understands subscriptions. This year, everyone who’s anyone debuted a fashion subscription box, including Amazon. Amazon Prime Wardrobe, currently in beta, lets shoppers try on and return clothing for free, which is clutch for anyone wary of how an item might look once it’s on their body.
Amazon does seem to have caught the scent of its plus-size opportunity. In March—less than a week after the Nike activewear fracas—the company posted a job listing for a brand manager of plus-size fashion. Consulting company Bain & Co. also told Bloomberg that Amazon grew its share of the plus-size women’s market about 50% in the past three years.
There is an argument to be made that companies shouldn’t have to serve every shopper. (I’m reminded of Mean Girls‘ 135, a fictional store that only carried clothes in those sizes.) But for retailers that rely on scale, or have claimed to support size diversity, it makes less and less business sense to keep ignoring this market. Walmart knows this—that’s likely why it bought plus-size champion ModCloth—and it seems increasingly likely that Amazon knows it too.