A nearly universal humbling experience: The scene begins as one gleefully heads for the dressing room with armfuls of clothing that look stunning on the rack. Behind the curtains in front of a full-length mirror, every attempt to squeeze into or swim out of each garment intensifies the frustration. One, maybe two items fit. Or worse, none. The expression, "size matters," takes on a whole, new angst-producing meaning.
Shoppers at clothing retailers, department stores and malls across America feel painfully like misfits every day as impulse shopping becomes revulsion. Trouble finding clothes to fit properly vexes each individual who goes through the humiliation. But an entire population of clothing shoppers pitching a fit about bad fits has become an emerging cause celebre for the $163 billion apparel industry. "Many retailers and manufacturers don't even realize what they are missing," says Susan Ashdown, associate professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell University, who consults on clothing size and fit issues for major merchandisers. "When a woman goes into a dressing room and tries on five pairs of pants and only one fits right, she's only going to buy the one. It is a big problem, but it is a hidden one, because there is no way to track the loss of what could have been additional sales." Studies show that more than one in three items of clothing purchased from catalogs goes back where it came from because of a bad fit. Overall, a nation with a bad case of the distressing-room blues is taking an immeasurable toll on the industry.
The apparel sector, like other consumer market segments, has grappled with the economy of late. Total sales in 2002 fell 2 percent from 2001 figures, and tumbled 7 percent compared with 2000. In women's apparel, the numbers are even more alarming, with a drop of 6 percent between 2002 and 2001, and 13 percent since 2000. Still, macroeconomic woes are only partly to blame for the apparel industry's diminished revenues over the past few years, experts say. Also credit a lack of attention to sizing issues for the poor track record, says Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at The NPD Group's Fashionworld research division, based in Port Washington, N.Y.