Sunday, September 20, 2009
Despite the “growing epidemic of obesity” that will have us all dead by the end of next week, the plus size market in Canada, is still significantly smaller than the regular size one. In March of 2008, market research firm NPD Group, found that there had been significant growth in the women’s plus market in Canada, with one in five female shoppers purchasing in plus. However; that’s still only 20% of the market and NPD’s definition of plus starts at size 14. When I spoke with Mitchell, she defined plus as truly beginning at size 18. Both measures are true, but there is a compelling logic to Mitchell’s grouping, in that most women wearing 14/16 can shop at a wider variety of stores. They may not be able to shop at every regular size store out there, but they have a significantly greater number of choices than I do at a size 18/20.
The sheer dearth of plus retailers in Canada bears this out. The same report by NPD indicated that fully 57% of plus sales were done by the top ten retailers in the field. Unlike the US, where up to half of female consumers are size 14+, Canadian women are apparently still hitting the gym, eating right and smoking like chimney stacks to stay slim. With fewer customers to service and less product to purchase, pricing increases accordingly.
This made sense to me, but I still wanted to know why it was that Reitmans could offer such significantly lower prices than Addition-Elle to plus customers. Here I’ll remind you of that t-shirt that costs me $9.99 at Reitmans vs. $16.99 at Addition-Elle. To answer this question, Mitchell explained the second reason for the price discrepancies: the corporate structure of Reitmans Canada Ltd.
From where I’m standing, it seems perfectly logical to combine the purchasing power of AE, Penningtons and the Reitman’s Encore (plus) line, so as to lower costs across the board. Apparently, they don’t agree. Apart from maintaining the same corporate address, there is little else shared by AE/Penningtons and Reitmans; they are run as entirely separate entities, and thus purchasing volume is not shared. In effect, the much higher market penetration of Reitmans (at about twice the stores than either AE or Penningtons) can’t be utilized to lower purchasing costs for AE and Penningtons over all.
The next two reasons are fairly uncomplicated: amount and quality of fabric. While it’s clear to me that my size-18 garment is not significantly larger than a size 13/14 garment, I failed to take into account that a size-26 garment is larger. More fabric costs more money. As for quality, sometimes a price difference is reflective of a difference in quality.
Sometimes, however, a t-shirt is just a t-shirt, and in those cases, the grounds for the difference in price point might be about reason number five: branding. In large part, the different divisions of Reitmans Canada are run separately because their intended audiences differ. The marketing and branding diverges significantly because the customer differs. While AE and Penningtons are under the same division umbrella, even those stores are branded differently. As with all Penningtons stores, the one closest to where I live carries the MXM line (a trendier line of clothing), but most of the store caters to women 10-15 years my senior. The AE stores, on the other hand are going after a 35-40 year old woman.
Apart from demographic, there is also the concept of brand image and what the company is trying to convey—and if there’s one thing that the Addition-Elle brand is not trying to convey, it’s being the store with the lowest price. Believe me, I understand not trying to win the race to the bottom of pricing ladder; Wal-Mart will always be around for that. I just don’t know that I’m buying the image that Addition-Elle is selling. At first I thought this was just an issue of ineffective marketing, but I’ve come to believe that, even apart from my age, I’m not their intended customer.
I shop at AE for three reasons: I am a plus size, I like to dress reasonably well, and I like to have options. What is not included in these reasons is loyalty to the AE brand. When I think about shopping there, I know that the entire store is devoted to plus sizes, affording me options, and on a good day I’ll find a couple items that work for me. But I feel like the price point has always caused me to have a really ambivalent relationship with the brand and I suspect that a lot of younger women, who are not as financially secure as the intended demographic, might feel the same way. I still do as much shopping as I can in Reitmans Encore and I can honestly say that I feel a level of loyalty to the Reitmans brand.
I wondered aloud to Mitchell, during our conversation if, given the presence of younger customers who shop at AE out of necessity and lack of other options, that brand isn’t perhaps a bit narrow in its focus. I now wonder if it might be worth it to draw these younger shoppers in with slightly lower price points in order to garner a loyal customer, potentially for life. Kind of like all of us to whom McDonald’s was marketed when we were children. The food isn’t good—we’re just loyal.
And when I say lower the price points, I don’t mean slash and burn. I’m saying bring the $49.99 hoodie down to $39.99 and it brings it out of the realm of “too expensive for the brand” and into the realm of completely reasonable. Obviously the bottom line is profit, but I think, with a customer who shops in a store out of necessity rather than choice, it’s important to make the customer feel like they aren’t just being charged what the market will grudgingly bear; because if she can escape shopping there, she will. Having said all this, I don’t know how much weight each of the factors Mitchell outlined bring to bear on pricing, so I don’t know if there’s wiggle room at all**. I simply believe it‘s worth it for the marketing team behind the scenes to explore what drives customers like me to AE and Penningtons.
A few days after I wrote my initial letter, I was shopping at Addition-Elle and a girl in her early 20s was at the counter. She decided against buying some t-shirts that she couldn’t afford after experiencing a moment of sticker shock. The sales rep at the cash urged the young woman to buy the t-shirts anyway, but the rep’s urging lacked zeal. I suspect she saw in that customer a mirror image of herself, without the benefit of an employee discount.
**In rebuttal, Ms. Mitchell indicated that AE has lowered its prices in recent years and offers frequent generous promotions and sale pricing, but that due to the other factors mentioned earlier, the wiggle room is very limited.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
For those of you waiting patiently, after a bit of back and forth between Kerry Mitchell (president of Addition-Elle) and me, we are supposed to have a conversation sometime this coming week. As soon as I have something to report, you, the awesome blog fans, will know about it. In the mean time, I want to talk reality TV; specifically, fat reality TV.
The trend towards featuring heavier people on reality TV began slowly with shows like The Biggest Loser and X-Weighted. But a crop of new shows this summer has turned this light trickle into a deluge (or at least a fast-running stream). The afore-mentioned weight loss shows are still around with the addition of Dance Your Ass Off and the one-woman weight-loss journey, Ruby. More to Love—The Bachelor for the heavier set—features a big guy who is very psyched to be choosing from a bevy of big girls. And with this influx of fatty programming has come a valid questioning of whether these shows are actually about the denigration rather than the empowerment of overweight people.
A great deal of criticism has been leveled at all of the programs, with special censure for More to Love. In my opinion, the concept isn’t actually that bad. The bachelor in question, Luke Conley, makes no bones about how much he loves the voluptuous women in competition for his attentions. And a show that features women who wear double-digit dress sizes in a competition that doesn’t have to do with making them feel bad about their weight is certainly something to talk about. But it’s not all good news. Of all the comments on Fox’s website about the show after the first episode, 65% of them were entirely about the network’s unfortunate decision to post each contestant’s height and weight on the screen every time she was interviewed, as well as at elimination time. This is by no means a clear indicator of the percentage of people watching who are upset by this practice and, to be frank, I’m sure there are plenty of people tuning in, who are thrilled to the point of wetting themselves to have that information. But it does make one wonder if the producers really want to treat the contestants like they do the “regular” bachelorettes, or if the show is simply about making a buck at the expense of heavier women.
At least on More to Love, though, there’s question as to the intentions of the makers. No such question enters my mind when it comes to the programs focused on weight loss. Losing weight on TV hasn’t been dignified or even remotely fun since sometime around the Richard Simmons Sweatin’ to the Oldies infomercials. Contestants on The Biggest Loser, X-Weighted and Dance Your Ass Off spend weeks being humiliated, torn down and shouted at “for their own good;” which is why I love what little I’ve seen of Ruby. Ruby Gettinger is the most likeable person I’ve seen on reality TV, ever. She has weighed as much as 700lbs in her life and has lost over 400lbs before and during the show. In the episode that I watched most recently, her adorable ex-boyfriend came to town to help her find a new trainer because she’d just “fired” one. Ruby appears to be surrounded by a number of very supportive, down to earth people—rather than a bunch of self-righteous weirdos—and she does not evoke pity in the least. Instead, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to admit, she’s really inspirational and super refreshing. She represents what inclusive TV should look like all the time.
In Susie Orbach’s recent book Bodies, she talks about the Western fixation with the body as a personal renovation project, rather than the place in which we live and breathe. In the book’s opening pages, she makes the following comment, which, I think, characterizes so much of our attitude towards weight and weight loss: “The body has become a new focus in both women’s and men’s lives...the individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it. ’Looking after oneself’ is a moral value.”
I can’t think of a context in which this rings more true than in weight loss reality TV. I think an unfortunate number of people in the personal training business have never learned a thing about human nature or how to actually motivate people. Reading that excerpt in Bodies reminded me of every clip I’ve ever seen of X-Weighted’s Paul Plakas and every other trainer on every other reality TV show. They all seem to feel they have a license to belittle contestants because these people have committed the mortal sin of having ever gotten fat at all. It’s like some sort of church of fitness presided over by a gaggle of very hell fire and brimstone preachers. I wonder if these contestants have a lot of success keeping off the weight they’ve lost on the shows with no one around to threaten them anymore?
Recently I watched a show, that was the anti-Ruby, and probably the worst case of self-inflicted fat reality TV I’ve ever seen. It was a Discovery Health special called My Big Fat Body featuring actor/comedian Frank Payne. The funny man narrated the program, which resulted in a simultaneously hammy and pitiable hour of Payne sounding strangely surprised, and then depressed, about how unhealthy he’d become. I expected the show to be about Payne’s actual weight loss attempt, but it was mostly an hour of Payne being told that he was basically about to die by one doctor after another. He spends a useless day at the Stanford University Human Performance Lab, a centre designed to help top athletes find their teeny, tiny flaws and fix them, so they can go on to become super heroes and demi-gods. I’m not sure what the point was in putting Payne on the O2 max machine to do a stress test while he ran. The dexascan, which basically showed him his skeleton in relation to his body size, also seemed irrelevant. Payne was a large man with some health problems—a fact that was obvious before he ever set foot in the building. But he must have gotten something from the experience; in a moment of clarity (or delirium) afterward, Payne declares that he has to “get fit or die.”
By the end of the program, Payne is down 60lbs from an original 363lbs, which is impressive. But the show is full, front to back, with dramatizations of Payne eating uncontrollably, shots of his alleged weekend food intake, and an army of health professionals calling him a “ticking time bomb” and generally tut-tutting at him. There’s even a brief visit with a surgeon to talk about a gastric bypass that Payne never has. The time spent looking at Payne’s actual attempts at weight loss amount to about four minutes—how inspiring. While I’m glad he got what he wanted from the show, it seemed like he was required to check his dignity at the door from the get go, and that’s unfortunate. An experience that will likely change Payne’s life for the better shouldn’t have to be wrought with such cart loads of humiliation. But, for the moment, I guess that’s what keeps people on the couch watching.
Monday, July 27, 2009
First, a wee business lesson. If you didn’t already know this, Reitmans Canada is the big daddy of a corporation that owns the following stores: Reitmans, Smart Set, RW & Co., Penningtons, Addition-Elle, Cassis and Thyme Maternity. If you ever felt like the shirt you saw at Reitmans looked exactly the same as the one you saw at Smart Set, it’s probably because it was the same shirt.
Anyhoo, I’ve long simmered and seethed over the pricing of plus size clothing for women, but when I realized that the same corporation that can offer me at shirt at one store for $9.99 is happy to try and offer me pretty much the same shirt at another store for $16.99, I started to get kinda pissy. So I decided to write a letter. I know it’s just going into some massive in-box that’s being sorted by a lackey at Reitmans Canada, but this is just an opening salvo. I intend to keep picking away at this one, in Roger & Me fashion, until I get someone to explain why plus size customers are being treated as the profit centre for the company.
I have my thoughts on the matter. Regular size retail is a hell of a lot more competitive in Canada than plus size retail, so it becomes a matter of what the market will bear. With competition like Old Navy, H&M, the far less classy than it was when I was a kid Fairweather, Stitches and numerous others, just five feet away in the mall, Reitmans and Smart Set have to be at rock bottom to get a share of the market. One of the last bastions of plus size basics, Cotton Ginny, has closed three stores in Toronto in the past few months and seems like it might be on the way out. With competition like that, Addition-Elle and Penningtons barely have to compete at all. And a captive audience has made it clear to the company that they are willing to pay their crazy prices in order to, you know, not go about nekkid in the streets.
So I’ve written a letter to Kerry Mitchell, the president of Addition-Elle and Penningtons (see letter below). And I’ll keep you posted on what transpires.
I'm a customer from Toronto, Ontario and I'm writing because I continue to be dismayed by the difference in price point on your plus size clothing sold through Reitmans vs Addition-Elle and Penningtons. I'm also concerned about the overall difference in pricing between regular and plus size divisions at Reitmans Canada.
Obviously, I'm a plus sized customer, and so realistically, there are not a lot of stylish chain stores for me to shop in at the moment. I've never understood the dearth of options for plus size women in Canada, but that's another issue entirely. Of Reitmans Canada-owned stores, I prefer to shop at Reitmans because the price point is very reasonable. However, even in some of the biggest locations in this city (for example, Dufferin Mall) there are maybe a total of 20 wall and floor racks dedicated to plus sizes (including plus petites and tall) with probably close to 100 wall and floor racks dedicated to regular sizes. So if I want variety I end up at Penningtons or Addition-Elle. And that's when things get whacky.
Astonishingly, the price of just about everything literally *doubles* when I enter those stores. Presently a v-neck T in regular sizes at Reitmans retails for $7.99; in plus sizes for $9.99. At Addition-Elle, that price jumps up to a whopping $16.99 on sale—regular $22.99. Is it literally taking twice the fabric overall to produce plus size clothing? I have a hard time believing that. It starts to feel like we plus size shoppers are your corporation's cash cows—no pun intended.
At this point, because I'm determined to enjoy shopping again, I'm back on a weight loss plan, but Reitmans Canada might not be the recipient of my business when I get back into regular sizes. Right now I'm a captive audience and I feel absolutely treated like one.
Looking at three of the regular size clothing stores on your roster, Reitmans, Smart Set and RW & Co., the prices at all those stores are reasonable. Any woman seeking great style at great value would be able to shop at those places. On the other hand I know plenty of plus sized women on a budget who just can't afford to shop at Addition-Elle and Penningtons. I couldn't always afford it. Why is this difference in pricing so pronounced? It's certainly not a difference in quality. Items I've purchased at Addition-Elle or Penningtons don't last any longer than the ones that I buy at Reitmans.
I realize you only head up Addition-Elle and Pennington's and aren't responsible for the pricing at all of Reitmans Canada's divisions, but I'd like to at least begin to understand the rationale around the pricing from someone intimately involved in the plus size division. I would be so grateful for a reasonable explanation. Plus size women have enough discrimination to contend with in an average day—it would be nice to feel like the clothing stores we support were supporting us in return.
Looking forward to your response,
Friday, July 3, 2009
I took today (July 2) off, anticipating that I’d need the day to recuperate from yesterday’s Canada Day festivities. Instead I came face to face with how very difficult it is to get drunk on shandies. So today was probably less a necessity than originally thought. However I’ve spent the entire day swanning around in my pyjamas, watching Wimbledon tennis (Serena won her semi-final match) and scoping out Meetup Groups. And despite my day of easy living, I’ve got nothing. No great insights. No earth shattering news story—certainly nothing that tops the deaths of last week. No personal revelations. So instead, a list: a list of fat things that I love.
Fat Hamsters – Unlike fat cats or dogs, fat hamsters still look like they can enjoy life. And frankly they aren’t living long enough for you to take them in for a hip replacement because they were carrying too much weight. That their cuteness increases almost in direct correlation to their fatness is undeniable. Fat hamsters are the shit.
Fat Asses – I have to be honest in that I only love certain fat asses. When the fat sits like two oversized apples on the bottom, outside edges of the behind, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. I do not have this type of butt and I lament it daily. I’d LOVE a butt like this. Some people would say no to that kind of butt, insisting that it too easily lends to saddle bag formation, should the fat shift even a little. To these I say, until the saddle bags appear, long live the chunky butt.
Fat Asians – Let me first say, this is not some sort of racist remark. I think Asians do heaviness better than most ethnic groups and that’s including black people. I’m not sure why, but I almost never find heavy Asian women unattractive. I always think they’re freaking adorable and get kinda mad that I could never achieve that kind of cute just by virtue of being overweight. My love for a fat Asian man isn’t as strong—but it’s there all the same. They have a way of appearing positively cherubic and I’m all over that (in a totally platonic way).
Phat Farm – This may not quite qualify, but I just love that a term that has always been so derogatory has been co-opted so beautifully for the sake of fashion.
Fat Back Taffy – This is Jill Scott’s band on the live portion of the double album “Experience 826+,” as well as a song on that album. The song sounds like an old time gospel ditty and it’s hard not to sing along.
Fat Stogies – It takes forever and a day for me to smoke a fat stogie but it’s the most delicious fun. It’s one of the few activities that I will tolerate that forces me to sit down and chill out. And it’s not the same as ‘in front of the TV’ chill, which isn’t really all that relaxing for your brain. It’s the kind of chill during which I sit on the rooftop with a glass of wine, in the cool of a summer evening, staring out at the city, and just chill.
A Fat Actress – I loved Roseanne Barr in her heyday. I know she wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but there are few family sitcoms I found nearly as enjoyable as “Roseanne.” I loved that the kids were never going to be even close to Cosby-perfect. I loved that her sister was so hapless. I loved that her husband was so freaking lovable. And I loved that Roseanne Barr actually tried to get this version of the American family on TV and managed to do it. I think she deserves kudos for that.
Another Fat Actress – Kathy Bates. ‘Nuff said. I don’t think of her as a “fat” actress. I just think of her as an amazing actress who has managed to really do well coming into the game pretty late. And she happens to be fat so she can be in this list, but her fatness is really neither here nor there. I simply think of it as her comeliness.
Fat Articles about Skinny People – I include these in the list because they are both maddening and comedic gold all at once. I love it when women like Scarlett Johansson and Evangeline Lily are the women listed in articles about how “fat” is back in Hollywood. I will stomach seeing them called curvaceous because they do have actual breasts and sometimes behinds as well. But anyone’s breasts can seem amazingly large if their waist is amazingly small. I don’t think either of these women would appear particularly curvaceous next to a woman who was a curvy size 8 or 10—you know, the women walking around in front of us all day, every day—the average ones. Johansson and Lily are not fat; hell, they aren’t even average. They are nothing like the rest of us or they wouldn’t be steadily working actresses in Hollywood—period.
Fat Lips – I used to hate my lips as a kid. I mean really despise them. They were too big. I was raised in the suburbs, often the only black kid in my class; if I was lucky, one of maybe three or four in an entire school. I wasn’t teased a lot or anything, but it was tough trying to figure out what beauty looked like in my skin rather than the skin of someone paler. One of my brothers used to constantly tell me to “fold my lips,” insisting that I make them look smaller. I don’t think it was until my late 20s that I started to realize that big, fat, luscious lips weren’t all bad—and I’m not even including the utterly lewd reason that will go through most male heads at this point. I’m still not thrilled when someone makes some weird ass comment about my lips being big because they’ve never laid eyes on a black person before, but for the most part I’m pretty open to compliments now. And as I’ve grown to like my own lips, I’ve started loving big, fat, luscious lips on other people (with the notable exception of Angelina Jolie whose completely natural lips still manage to look like they’ve suffered some sort of Botox assault). Michelle Pfeiffer’s top lip—to die for. Jude Law’s lower lip—a touch of heaven. LL Cool J’s lips are nearly a brand unto themselves. I want to kiss Missy Elliott’s lips—they are freaking gorgeous. All hail big lips.
Fat Sausages – Everyone loves sausage; the fatter, the better.
Fat Asian Babies – This list is in no particular order otherwise, but this is my number one pick. Though I’ve already pointed the general awesomeness of fat Asian adults, I felt that fat Asian babies deserved a category of their own, so special and distinct is my love for them. All fat babies are pretty cute (except for ugly babies—but they’re ugly no matter what size they are). It’s the one time in life when it’s okay to look like the Michelin Tire Man. But there is something insane that happens in my head when I see a fat little Asian baby. I am vaguely tempted to steal it, bring it home, fatten it up further and then snack upon it with little love bites. I can’t help but smile at random fat Asian babies. On transit vehicles, I turn into a grinning idiot. In the street, I won’t hesitate to fall into baby talk. These children have a power over me that is unholy, and yet, wholly welcome. If I ever have children, blame the fat Asian babies—they made me do it.
So that’s my list. I hope it brought you some post Canada Day enjoyment. Please tell me what fat things you love (besides me). Perhaps we can compile a comprehensive list for next Canada Day.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I’m sure you’ve noticed it. I have before today, but it really struck me this time. Recently I’ve been seeing an ad on the subways for Reitmans, a women’s clothing store that carries plus sizes. The woman in the picture is ostensibly plus sized. The copy next to her reads “Comes in small, medium and fabulous.”
I know I’m supposed to feel all special and empowered by this declaration of my fabulousness as a plus sized woman, but I just feel sort of condescended to.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has also used this particular trick. Some time ago they had billboards up around the city showing the image of a woman and two descriptive words. The public was invited to e-mail in their opinion of which word was more accurate. For example, one was a very freckled woman and the listed options were “ugly spots” or “beauty spots.” The options on the billboard I’m thinking of were “fat” or “fab.”
Understandably advertisers are not going to touch a word like fat, and all its negative connotations, with a ten foot pole, unless they are positioning it next to a more positive word—like fabulous. I get that it’ll probably be a while until we’re able to unpack a word like “fat” and allow it to just be a descriptor of size rather than an attack on character. It’s just odd that in a culture apparently suffering an epidemic of obesity we still can’t manage to find a way to talk about size that doesn’t make it feel like we’re avoiding swearing. Instead we’re busy re-claiming and disowning and doing everything in our power to avoid using the word fat.
The Reitmans ad verges on being confusing because the woman pictured is so very close to being a regular size. In fact, she very likely is a “regular” size. Barbara Brickner—one of the most famous plus size models in the industry—is a size 12. Whitney Thompson, winner of cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model is considered a plus size model, and her size fluctuates between 8 and 10. I guess fair is fair—regular models are laughably unlike real women, so I guess the same goes for plus size models. My point is that the women used for plus size advertising are so normal looking if they’re not placed next to a “regular” model that it can actually be confusing. I wondered at first if the ad was just indicating that clothes at Reitmans also come in large or extra large. It took an extra second for me to make the connection that fabulous was a euphemism for plus.
As it is, fabulous is a word that has been squeezed of all its original meaning anyway. It seems to be the word people use when they want to describe a situation, item or person they actually find far from fabulous while still leaving everyone’s feelings intact. In fact, I’m sort of suspect of someone the minute they use the word. I start to immediately doubt their sincerity about everything that they say. And maybe that’s what I’m keying into in the ad. I don’t actually believe these advertisers think plus sized women are fabulous at all.
The Dove ads use the word in a different way. They clearly buy into all the bad connotations of the word fat because the woman pictured cannot apparently be fat and fabulous—she must be one or the other. Well frankly, given advertising beauty standards, she kind of has to be both. She’s a great looking woman who is quite well proportioned and bigger than average (at least for a model): fabulous and fat.
Both ads leave me with the impression of a sort of whitewash; a complete negation of fat people from advertising existence. We’ll either be acknowledged in euphemisms or not at all because apparently some of us can be too fabulous to even be fat. I’m pretty sure that I don’t fall into that category.
I’m not sure I’m ready for the word fat to be used in advertising. I think even I’m too painfully aware of all the baggage that word brings with it and I don’t know that I’d want to identify with an ad campaign that used the word. But it seems like fabulous doesn’t quite do the job either. Some clothing manufacturers have made an art form of referring to plus sizes and the advertising industry could probably get some pointers. I wouldn’t recommend all the things I’ve seen on clothing labels in my time—“Above Average” and “Encore” are some of the more amusing ones that come to mind—but there just has to be a better way. I mean, it would be nice if we could just say, “this clothing line comes in plus sizes” or “this woman is, incidentally, both fat and conventionally attractive (i.e. you don’t have a have a raging fat fetish to think she’s cute).” Clearly I’m not the person who should be writing this ad copy, but you get what I mean.
I’ve heard it said that advertising doesn’t set trends, it follows them and in these cases I think that rings true. As a culture we haven’t figured out a way to engage with fatness that isn’t mostly about dripping condescension, judgment or fetishism, and I think it might be a while before we do. It’d be nice though, if advertisers managed to get out ahead of the trend for once.