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Fashion Retailers See the Pluses of the Plus-Size Market

U.S. fashion retailers are bringing their plus-size collections for young women to San Diego, a recognition that the market doesn’t consist solely of girls who wear sizes in single digits.

Over the past few months, two store chains have announced plans to establish new beachheads, or grab a bigger share of the market, in San Diego’s shopping malls and retail districts.

And that’s welcome news for the retailing market overall, including the leasing market for retail space.

“Retailers have finally figured this out,” said Lisa Haddock, a marketing lecturer in the business school of San Diego State University. “The average size woman in the U.S. is a size 14, and that’s something I talk about a lot in my classes.”

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Indeed, more than half the clothes sold to women are in size 14 and bigger, according to U.S. market researcher NPD Group Inc.

Not surprising, given that two-thirds of U.S. women are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Retailers Think Big

Active retailers include H&M, a Swedish-based trendy clothing purveyor to both men and women, which has five stores in San Diego, including one in Mission Valley’s Fashion Valley mall, and said to be looking at opening a store in a new shopping center in San Ysidro.

Earlier this year, the retailer announced its “Big is Beautiful” line of clothing in sizes ranging from 14 to 24.

H&M, with 2600 stores worldwide, is famous for its fast fashion strategy, which is rushing designs shown on the fashion show runways to the retail rack in a few weeks, at very inexpensive prices.

Until recently a lot of manufacturers based their sizes on models found in Asia, who tend to be thinner than women in the U.S., said Haddock.

But now they want to grab a share of the market for heavier women because that’s where the potential for growth lies, said Haddock.

New York-based research firm IbisWorld said sales of plus-size apparel will rise 5.2 percent a year over the next five years compared to just 2.7 percent for the apparel industry as a whole.

Trend Toward Larger Sizes

Los Angeles-based Forever 21 Inc. is another young female retailer jumping on larger sizes and expanding in San Diego with a 63,000-square-foot store in Fashion Valley, a sizable chunk of the center’s 1.7 million square feet of leasable space.

Haddock, who has two teenage daughters, one in high school and one in college, notes that retailers muscling into a market formerly dominated by the likes of Lane Bryant Inc., or left to Walmart stores and Target, where little is left on the hangers after just a few days.

“There is certainly a trend toward larger sizes or plus sizes,” added Haddock. “They’re trying to come up with new words.”

The retailers will face Torrid, a full-size focused retailer found in malls that have been around for a decade. It is a division of publicly traded Hot Topic Inc.

Robert Doherty, manager of the sprawling 200-store Fashion Valley Mall, noted that retailer Charlotte Russe is one of 11 new arrivals opening in his mall in 2012.

The locally based apparel and accessories merchant is also starting to sell to customers in search of larger sizes and recently began selling items as large as size 18.

Only the Strong Survive

In addition, the company announced the launch of a digital store on Facebook in August, recognition of the fact that more and more shoppers are migrating to online purchases, including those females of size.

The Fashion Valley’s Doherty said Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe Inc. will be joined by other apparel and accessory merchants, such as Cotton On, Foreign Exchange, and Louis Vuitton.

Bill Thaxton, a broker at UTC-based retail leasing firm Flocke & Avoyer, said the arrival of such stores as H&M and Forever21 has had a big impact on the market for retail space.

The lack of space traditionally in tight supply in San Diego has made it more difficult for regional and independent retailers to come in and compete.

He noted, for example, that H&M leased space in the upmarket Forum shopping center in Carlsbad that had been formerly occupied by a bookstore.

It’s part of an overall trend for the stronger retailers to replace the weak.

“They’re taking up space abandoned by other retailers,” he said.

He said that landlords like the new arrivals because they help draw more shoppers to the mall.

During the downturn, these apparel companies as well as other national retailers, snapped up leases at bargain rates as businesses like Borders bookstore, Circuit City and Mervyn’s’s closed their doors during the current economic malaise.

“They really took advantage of the vacancies that cropped up,” said Thaxton, who said that their arrival has helped strengthen the market by making it more competitive for retailers of all sizes, from the national stores to the independents.

“Overall, it has been a positive influence on the leasing market,” he said.

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