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This post talks about my experience at Athleta, but more importantly I hope it captures some of the frustration… and possibility that can come with more inclusive sizing in retail stores.
Not to be dramatic, but this experience I'm about to share was noteworthy enough to bring up to my therapist. I excitedly told her the story of going into Athleta for the first time ever, and how it brought up all kinds of emotions. At the end, I summed it up with:
I didn't have to shrink to fit in… they expanded to include me.
The Typical Plus Size Retail Shopping Experience
Let's rewind: As a plus size person (and extended plus at that,) the number of physical stores that I can shop in is extremely limited. We're talking a few department stores (that usually top out at 24) plus Lane Bryant and Torrid. In the past few years, we've lost 2 major retail presences in Avenue and Catherines. That's basically half of my in-store shopping options that have disappeared. For all the progress that's been made with body positivity and extended sizing, one place that has actively been shrinking is plus size retail stores.
If you're unfamiliar with plus size shopping, here are the options we've had since I've been wearing them (um, since the 1980s):
- Plus size speciality retailer: A store that only sells plus size. You know something will likely fit, and you don't feel out of place shopping there. Think Lane Bryant and Torrid.
- Retailer with a plus size section: A store that sells smaller sizes, but has a section where you can shop in plus sizes. This section has traditionally been hidden in an upper floor or back corner, has very few items available, and is poorly merchandised, which necessitates digging for items. Examples are stores like Macy's and Target. You feel like you're being singled out, but at least you know where to look for your size.
- Retailer with no plus sizes: Really nothing to explain here — these are the stores you go to with your smaller friends and pretend to be REALLY interested in accessories to try to distract from the fact your body doesn't fit in the clothes. See: nearly every retailer in a mall.
- Retailer with plus sizes mixed in: These are more myth than reality – I can only think of one store off hand that tried to do this (a select Nordstrom location) but it's a scenario many people bring up when there's a debate about plus sizes. Some people don't like the term “plus size” and argue we should just have everything available mixed in. This gives me a little anxiety just thinking about how many racks I'd have to search for to find a few items in plus. It could work, but the store would need every item in straight and plus sizes so there's no hunting for sizes.
Shopping in a bigger body is like solving a 500-piece puzzle. There are so few options that we have to really navigate with caution. It's inconvenient, but I haven't ever known any other way.
When Companies Fail at Plus Size Lines
The plus community has suffered through repeated false starts from many, many brands over the years. The story usually goes like this:
- Brand announces they're offering plus – or extended – sizes. Maybe the press and some influencers pick up the news, but the everyday woman at home usually won't realize this is a thing.
- Upon examination, we realize said sizes are only offered online, meaning we're already cut out of the retail experience and still having to jump through hoops and guessing games to order online. The retail shopper doesn't even realize plus exists since it's not seen in stores.
- To add insult to injury, we realize they are offering a very limited assortment – this is the number of styles offered. Instead of 400 options in straight sizes, filtering down to a size 18 will reveal a small handful of items, usually offered in the most basic colors.
- A few months to a couple of years go by and there is a quiet shuttering of those extended sizes due to “lack of performance.” The consumer is blamed for the financial failure of this expansion, when it's because the brand didn't adequately market, design, and merchandise (present) their limited offerings. “Wait, I didn't know that White House Black Market had plus!”
- Unfortunately, I fear that other businesses look to these line closings as financial risks they don't want to take, which makes them more hesitant to take the leap themselves.
70% of women in the US wear a size 14 or larger, yet less than 20% of apparel is made in those sizes. There is opportunity, but you have to do the work and invest the money.
Athleta Announces Inclusive Sizing in Stores
There was a lot of news in early 2021 about Athleta re-vamping their plus sizing and expanding dramatically in their offerings of plus sizes (up to a 26W). Brand images rolled out of larger bodies moving with smaller bodies. They said it would be in stores, not just online. And not just in a few test stores – ALL stores. Furthermore, they would offer at least 500 items in these expanded sizes at launch, with a promise for more in the future. This kind of assortment with an expansion is unheard of. The last kicker: all sizes were going to be on the same racks.
The news sounded too good to be true. In fact, I had a lot of skepticism because I couldn't imagine that level of investment from a brand, and the lived disappointing experiences as a plus consumer. I didn't rush to look at the site or go to the store.
A little bit after the announcement, I was contacted by my local Athleta store to see if I would be interested in coming in to check out the store and potentially share about an upcoming sale. My initial reaction was: “meh.” While I loved Athleta styles in theory, I've been burned before. Also, as someone who usually wears a 28W, I was concerned their styles (labeled as up to a 3X/26W) may not fit me. My closet consists of items in sizes 22-32 – all items that fit me – but have so much variation in size charts, cuts, and materials that it's a crapshoot as to what size I may need in this new-to-me brand.
Still, I appreciated the outreach. The store is within 2 miles of my house, so I decided to go across the street to take him up on his offer to see the store and pick up some items. My desire for more Peloton clothes and comfy loungewear toppled my hesitancy.
The shopping Olympics began before I set foot in the store:
- I scoured their size charts to see if I was remotely close to their measurements
- I then searched through the website to see if I could identify cuts that may work on my apple shape so that I could more easily go into the store with an idea of what I wanted so I could ask in the case it was too hard to find.
- Using the Curbside Pickup filter, I searched for items available at my local store. This is where my alarm went off: of all the 450+ items Athleta said they had in my size, only 8 items were identified as available for in-store for pickup. And you guessed it: they were all black or white, and not styles I was excited about.
The thought of hunting through an entire store to find 8 items in my size was anxiety-producing. When I walked in the store, I felt very much on the defensive. I knew I was supposed to be there because I was asked to be there, but the fear of finding just 8 items meant a potentially uncomfortable experience. Yet, the first thing I saw walking into the store: a plus mannequin.
At first, I did the thing I usually do in stores that I know don't carry my size: mindlessly poke at some items on racks and look at accessories. Yet, I knew at some point I needed to find some clothes, so I steadied myself for the dig ahead.
But.. there was no digging.
Every item I looked at and wanted was in my size. Mixed in with the 00s and XXS… was my 3X and 26W. Thankfully, the store was very well maintained with sizes in appropriate order on each rack. I became slightly obsessive about this in my old retail days at Lane Bryant in college, so I was really relieved. The fact that it's a smaller store meant there wasn't an overwhelming number of items to sift through. Yet, there was a lot of variety.
As I continued to pick up item after item, I suppressed my delight since I still had concerns about the fit as I was slightly out of their size chart range. When I finally went into the dressing room, I was 1) surprised by how much I'd amassed in there as the associates continued to free my hands as I was browsing; 2) concerned of the embarrassment that I'd have to walk away from it all empty-handed.
I tried on 12 items. 11 of them fit. SAY WHAT?!
I left with 3 pieces as a courtesy for sharing about their sale, but knew I'd be back to buy more before the sale was over because I had such a hard time narrowing it down. Options… we don't know her!!
I'm not being dramatic when I say that it was confusing, emotional, and exhilarating. For the first time in my life (that I can remember), I was able to shop in the same store, on the same rack, as “regular” sizes. Like it was NO BIG DEAL. Yet, it felt like such a big deal.
When I got home, I did an off-the-cuff Instagram Story trying to explain this surreal shopping experience and had so many people asking questions about the experience, sizing, options, and telling me they were going to go to the store. It wasn't just me who had big feelings about it! (I can't embed it, but you can watch it all here.)
I ended up going back into the store to purchase a few more items I left behind, and while it still felt weird being by far the largest person shopping in the store, I felt so much better knowing that I was, in fact, a worthy customer included by the brand. I've since bought more (RIP wallet) and their ultra high waist Elation 7/8 tights have been crowned my absolute favorite workout leggings.
Amazing Start, but Room For Improvement
This is an amazing first move by Athleta, and took an extensive financial commitment in development, merchandising, and marketing. My hands and wallet applaud them! Patterning and grading 500+ items in so many additional sizes is a feat that can only be achieved by executive commitment and a healthy cash flow. There aren't many brands that can execute at this level, but they are out there. My wish is for Athleta to be so wildly successful with this expansion that it encourages other retailers to take some serious notes and make moves to catch up.
There are 3 areas of improvement that I hope Athleta considers moving forward:
- Sizing: There are many active brands that say they're extending sizing, only to go to an 18 or 20 (*cough* Lululemon.) Many standard plus lines only go to a 24. So Athleta committing to a 26 is really commendable. But, there are many bodies that are larger than a size 26W that deserve to have these options. Calling a 26W inclusive when it literally excludes bodies above that size is inherently exclusionary. Offering an even fuller size range would be incredible. There are brands doing it: Universal Standard offers up to a 40, Superfit Hero offers a 40/42, and Lane Bryant recently expanded to 40 in select items. What none of those brands can offer, however, is an in-person retail experience that is inclusive of bodies of all sizes. Athleta is uniquely positioned to do something that no retail player has done before. I sincerely hope they take advantage of it.
- Assortment: This is an amazing start – the best I've ever seen in a plus expansion – but there have been a couple of colors of items I wanted online that didn't come in plus. I also heard some raves about their swimsuits but noticed none of them are in extended sizing. So, expansion into ALL items would be a next step. In interviews earlier this year, there was talk of this being in the works. I'm hopeful that they can make it happen.
- Marketing: This is a long game, and so often we see brands with large marketing spends at the beginning of a launch, only to quickly putter out. Good things: They are utilizing influencers with very large followings, continuing to produce imagery for social and print that include more diverse bodies. Consider though, if people in larger bodies have never been able to experience your store – and generally haven't been able to experience the majority of stores – how much messaging needs to be done to reach them. Even as plugged-in to the industry as I am, I still threw up objection after objection as to why I didn't want to go in-store. A referral program could go far, particularly if you could find a way for current in-store shoppers to introduce their plus friends to the brand. Additional associate training on mentioning extended sizes to all shoppers at checkout could be helpful. More overt online marketing targeted to plus audiences with messaging of plus sizes in-store is another option. I have more ideas, but since I own a marketing consulting company, I probably shouldn't give it all away for free! You get the idea, though. I don't think that Athleta will have any problem with retention as soon as a customer gets in the door, but the barrier to get them inside is high.
Hopefully you can understand now why my therapist got an earful about my Athleta experience. It was the joy of being included, and also the frustration with the realization that the plus customer really has missed out on a lot of the retail experience. In a world where larger bodies are told to get smaller to fit in, this company expanded to include us. If only the whole world could be so inclusive…
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy more of those damn good tights… now in capri length.