At Lululemon, slim pickings in plus sizes

After its sheer fabric fiasco, hiding pants sizes 10 through 12 and shunning larger sizes may not make good business sense.

By Jason Notte Jul 31, 2013 2:07PM
Clothing made by Lululemon Athletica Inc. on display for sale on March 19, 2013 in Pasadena, California (© Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)The uproar, ensuing lawsuits and slowed sales resulting from Lululemon Athletica's (LULU) sheer yoga pants have muddled the apparel chain's future, but one thing remains clear: Plus-size folks still aren't welcome amid its shelves of Luon fabric and yoga mats.

The Huffington Post shared the tale of a Philadelphia Lululemon employee who had to relegate size 10 and 12 pants to a table in the back of the store while smaller sizes dominated displays and racks. HuffPo asserts that such placement offers a skewed perspective of healthy body image, but it just boils down to bad business.

By hiding those sizes and shunning larger sizes altogether, Lululemon is scoffing at the roughly $332 million consumers are poised to spend on athletic wear sold at plus-size women's clothing stores this year, according to an estimate from market research firm IBISWorld. That estimate doesn't include purchases made in stores that also sell less-than-plus sizes.

Larger Americans have already been getting fairly rough treatment. Abecrombie & Fitch (ANF) caps women's pants sizes at a 10 while also refusing to sell pants in a slimming black. The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J., was just told by a judge that it could fire cocktail waitresses just for gaining weight. Lululemon, meanwhile, seems fearful of treading anywhere near plus-size territory, despite the fact that nearly 32% of Americans qualify as obese.

For those wondering what constitutes "plus-size," PLUS Model Magazine sets the bar at size 12. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have put it at size 14, which is also the average dress size among American women, according to a 2011 report from Women's Wear Daily.

In an interview with the Calgary Herald in 2005, Lululemon founder and former chief executive officer Chip Wilson said it takes 30% more fabric to create plus-size clothes, meaning he would have to charge a higher price for them. Wilson wouldn't do that, he said, because plus-size people are sensitive, and he didn't want his company to bear the fallout of such a move.

"It's a money loser, for sure," he told the Calgary Herald. "I understand their plight, but it's tough."

As Lululemon prepares to part with upwards of $40 million in profits this year after embarrassing even the slender wearers of its $98 yoga pants, competitors are more than happy to scoop up the plus-size business it's leaving on the table.

Though a majority of plus-size women told market research firm NPD Group they have trouble finding desirable, high-quality clothing styles, more outlets are starting to meet their demands.

Both Forever 21 and H&M have plus-size yoga lines. Lululemon's biggest competitor, Gap's (GPS) Athleta, offers "extended" sizes, as does its casual yoga gear carrier Old Navy. Lane Bryant and Avenue, known for their everyday plus-size wares, have begun to offer yoga apparel as well. Nordstrom's (JWN) Zella brand, meanwhile, hits size 24 for some styles.

At a time when its small, overly stretchy yoga fabric is costing it a bundle, Lululemon can ill afford to be so inflexible about its sizes.

More on moneyNOW

Jul 31, 2013 4:36PM
It's ridiculous to accept that at a size 12, I'm considered plus sized. Being extremely athletic and muscular has it's downside, apparently. Maybe if women could find the athletic apparel in their size, they'd be able to use it to become healthier and buy smaller sizes in the future.
Jul 31, 2013 4:03PM
some clothes plus size people do not belong in.  That includes me.  With that being said if they don't offer these clothes in larger sizes,  it keeps the ones that are in denial that they look good in them when they don't from having them on.
Aug 29, 2013 1:34PM
Costco has well-made yoga pants for $20 bucks, and they go up to XL in all stores in Canada.  Some, like Abbotsford, even carry XXL.  Lululemon is crazy to not cater to women over size 12.  Charge more money if use more fabric.  Really, it's not that hard to implement sound business practices.  They are just being discriminatory to people who want to lose weight and keep fit.  Kinda strange for a company promoting fitness.  
Jul 31, 2013 3:29PM
Isn't this the place that just had a voluntary recall due to it's "joga" pants being see-through? Obviously they don't want to provide "plus" sizes. Who wants to see beyond the pants if it's got ripples and waves?
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