From 'Tiring' To 'I Like This:' How The Clothing Industry Is Wooing Plus-Size Customers

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, July 12, 2018 - 5:00am
Updated: Thursday, July 12, 2018 - 9:31am

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Christina Estes/KJZZ
Sarah Saucedo browses at Torrid store in Tempe in June 2018.

For the past five years, plus-size women’s clothing stores have seen revenues increase while revenues have fallen for stores selling straight-size clothing. Straight-size is the industry phrase for standard sizes and do not include plus-size or petites.

Now, more companies are paying attention to some women who have felt ignored by the fashion industry.

Meet Sarah

It’s a toasty summer evening in Tempe and Sarah Saucedo is a bit out of her element.

“For the most part I’ve been very skeptical of trend stores version of plus-size,” she says.

This is the 23-year old’s first visit to the Torrid store at Arizona Mills Mall. She usually shops at Target and Walmart.

“Some of it’s convenience — I’m already at Walmart or Target and I can just go grab some stuff while I’m there,” she says. “But I’ve just been nervous about what it would mean to be a shopper at a plus-size store.”

“That’s out there, but I think once they come in and see what we have to offer that fear goes away,” says Donna Ames who oversees 13 Torrid stores. “We offer clothing for 68 percent of the women in America.”

Changing Business Models

In an era of store closures and bankruptcy filings, Torrid stands out. It opened its first store in California in 2001. Today, the retailer has more than 480 locations throughout the United States and Canada.

“Torrid is one of the fastest-growing companies in the space with their brick-and-mortar sales over doubling in size since 2014,” says Marisa Lifschutz, an industry analyst with IBISWorld, Inc.

She says part of Torrid’s appeal is its focus on trendy clothes.

“Department stores are realizing that the market has been traditionally underserved and as the customer base continues to grow larger these stores are capitalizing on this trend,” Lifschutz says.

Nordstrom recently extended clothing sizes at 30 stores (adding both smaller and larger sizes) while Target plans to add more mannequins of various sizes at 500 stores this year, including two in metro Phoenix.

“We started to introduce different sizes — 4, 10,16, 18, 22 — over the course of last year,” says Jessica Carlson, a spokeswoman for Target. “By doing that we’re giving not only our plus-size guests, but all guests a feeling of inclusivity in our stores.”

At Torrid their sizes start at 10, not the plus-size industry standard size 14.

“From personal experience, I can tell you there are not a lot of size 10 women’s clothing that are meant for a curvy woman,” says Ames, the district manager.

“From personal experience, I can tell you there are not a lot of size 10 women’s clothing that are meant for a curvy woman.”
— Donna Ames, Torrid district manager

Sarah Saucedo knows the feeling.

“There’s differences in the way plus-size people sometimes carry weight in different areas of their body and it’s helpful to take that into consideration instead of literally upsizing all your other sizes,” she says. “That’s why they don’t fit quite right.”

Taking A Chance

Saucedo caresses a flowy, floral dress and comments on how soft it is. But she doesn’t try it on.

“It gets tiring after a while,” she says while turning away. “Just assuming things aren’t going to fit.”

A clerk walks Saucedo through a dozen denim styles and sends her to the fitting room with a pair she’s sure will work. A minute later, Saucedo emerges wearing a smile — and good fitting jeans.

“These are so comfortable,” she says. “They really are!”

While retailers are offering more options for plus-size women, analyst Marisa Lifschutz says the men’s industry lags behind by focusing more on fit and not prioritizing fashion. That’s where subscription box services hope to cash in.

Christina Estes/KJZZ
Sarah Saucedo tries on a dress at Torrid in June 2018.

“Some of them tend to present a styling quiz and will pick a certain number of handpicked items that enable customers to try before they buy,” she says. “Others will specialize in niche corners such as only offering plus-size athletic gear or plus-size undergarments at a monthly membership fee.”

For both men and women, she expects to see future growth in athletic collections, swimwear and formal wear.

Back at Torrid, after her success with jeans, Saucedo is willing to take another step outside her comfort zone.

“I feel like I should be brave and try on something I wouldn’t normally try on,” she said.

She reaches for a black dress with yellow roses and spaghetti straps and disappears into a fitting room. It’s an area where Donna Ames has witnessed many emotions.

"We’ve had moments where we’ve had moms and dads who have cried in the fitting room because their daughter felt beautiful for the first time,” she says.

There are no tears from Sarah, just a smile that reaches her eyes as she admires herself in a full length mirror.

“I like this so much,” she says.

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