My kingdom for a Large!
July 28, 2006 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Why do clothing stores end up with so many extras of the smallest and largest sizes?

I'm not much of a shopper, but I frequently notice the following phenomenon when shopping for men's clothes: The Medium and Large sizes almost always run out first, leaving plenty of Small, Extra-Large, Extra-Extra-Extra-Large, etc. I have observed this both in-store and online.

Why does this happen so often? The simple answer is that Medium and Large are the most common, and therefore most popular, sizes. But shouldn't supply and demand ultimately correct for this? Why don't sellers carry fewer of the less common sizes, and more of the common sizes? It seems to me that if the market were efficient, all sizes would be depleted at relatively the same rate.
posted by brain_drain to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Because they probably have to make a minimum number of each size to make the fabric purchase/production line retooling/whatever worth it.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:35 PM on July 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Assume there are 5% XXL people, 5% XL people, 40% L, 40% M, and 10% small in the group of people who use the store.

Now assume the store tries to keep 12 instances of the same item (in various sizes) out for people to buy. 5% of 10 is 0.5, and they can't put out half a shirt, so they might put out 1 XXL, 1 XL, 3 L, 3 M, and 2 SM. There are four times as many people likely to buy the mediums than the smalls, yet only one more small on the rail.

They need to keep various sizes out, though, so as not to alienate portions of their clientele (or make people think they simply don't sell S or XL clothing).
posted by wackybrit at 1:37 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: I thought about this too and realized that there might be a selection effect at work.

That is, when they have my size, say a medium - I just grab the shirt and go. When they're out of my size, thats when I end up going through the whole pile and noticing just how many x-smalls and xxxx-larges there are. Maybe...

Its a good question though. With so much experience, why dont stores like say Banana Republic have the exact distribution that fits their demographic. Unless of course my theory above is right.
posted by vacapinta at 1:40 PM on July 28, 2006

When I worked at a retail store (aimed at 20 and 30 something, rhymes with k. poo), women's stuff worked, as I recall, something like this:

for a plain pair of khakis:
0 - 4
2 - 6
4 - 10
6 - 10
8 - 10
10 - 10
12 - 6
14 - 4
16 - 2

and if something was a little bit more revealing (a halter top perhaps):
0 - 4
2 - 6
4 - 10
6 - 10
8 - 8
10 - 8
12 - 2
14 - 2
16 - 2

mens would work like this:
XS - 2
S - 2
M - 6
L - 14
XL - 14
XXL - 8
(men HATED buying things sized S. and even M... it was all about L for them.)
posted by k8t at 1:43 PM on July 28, 2006

But isn't it true that the actual average female body size in America is actually about a L or an XL (10-14)? At least, that's what I've heard.
posted by matildaben at 1:46 PM on July 28, 2006

I've honestly experienced a slightly different issue...I usually can find XS, S & M, but not L or XL (or if I do, in smaller numbers).
posted by tastybrains at 1:52 PM on July 28, 2006

Why don't sellers carry fewer of the less common sizes, and more of the common sizes? It seems to me that if the market were efficient, all sizes would be depleted at relatively the same rate.

They do carry fewer of the less common sizes and more of the common sizes. It's just that all those common people got the shirt you wanted before you did.

Obviously, they'd also like to sell you the shirt too, which just means they've misjudged demand for that item -- keep in mind that clothing isn't size-agnostic, so some things will be more popular with people at one size of the spectrum than the other.
posted by mendel at 2:04 PM on July 28, 2006

As k8t alludes to, it probably depends (especially for women's wear) on the type of garment. Some cuts are going to look better on small people, so the smalls might sell out faster. Some cuts are going to look better on tall or curvy people, and so the larger sizes sell out faster.
posted by occhiblu at 2:06 PM on July 28, 2006

I worked for a clothing designer/manufacturer for awhile and she only sold clothes in packs of 1-2-1-1 (S-M-L-XL). It was a very small business and deviating from this count would cost big money.
posted by jennyb at 2:06 PM on July 28, 2006

I experience the same thing as tastybrains. It sometimes feels like they don't MAKE my size (L).
posted by divabat at 2:09 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: It seems simple that any given store should carry a Gaussian ("bell" curve) distribution of garment sizes in its local inventory.

But textile and garment manufacturers generally work on scales where they need to create products that follow the distribution of their customers, and this introduces complications.

This figures into their assembly line design, since larger clothing uses more material and requires more labor. For a line of clothing, minor changes in the upper end of this distribution curve can make a major impact on profitability.

These global companies must not only make clothing with a particular size distribution, the line must be made to take into account the cultural features of the customers who will be wearing it. For example, Americans have larger bodies, on average, than SE Asians. Therefore, what is considered a medium in North America may be a large overseas. Cultural considerations affect how much of any particular size is made.

Distribution is also an issue. Chains which order their own line of clothing (Gap, H+M, Kenneth Cole, etc.) have some control here, but what a store has may not be a good reflection of what the warehouse has. Indeed, I've ordered clothing through some chains that was actually shipped from different locations across the country, simply because sizes and store availability varied so greatly. One way to put it is that a chain might be "globally efficient" (i.e. profitable) at matching clothing with its customer base, but "locally inefficient" because of local customer variability.

Other stores simply buy from redistributors, which increases the variability in what a size really means — one manufacturer's medium is another's small — and what access a store has to a particular distribution of sizes from those distributors.

Some stores may do analysis and target their purchasing efforts to their customers. Wal-Mart, as one example, is well known for being all about purchase analysis behind the scenes, and I suspect — with no disrespect meant — that the bulk of what they sell focuses on the upper end of the size range, leaving you in the lurch if you're not in the thick end of this distribution curve.

So your size may not be available, but that may be because the store you visited finds it is most profitable selling a non-Gaussian distribution of clothing sizes, and you simply did not luck out.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:10 PM on July 28, 2006

"But isn't it true that the actual average female body size in America is actually about a L or an XL (10-14)? At least, that's what I've heard."

I dunno about that matildaben... ever since I've dropped from a L (10-12) to a S (4-6), it seems like I can NEVER find things in my size anymore. Used to never be a problem.

it's driving me nuts. probably wouldn't be such an issue if I didn't live in the skinniest city in the U.S. of A. because it has occurred to me that national chains probably don't consider local demographics in these sorts of decisions.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:12 PM on July 28, 2006

average female body size in America is actually about a L or an XL (10-14)? At least, that's what I've heard."

Last time I read an actual news article about this (maybe 2003?), the size cited was a 12.

I'm in the same boat as lonefrontranger though.
posted by whatzit at 2:17 PM on July 28, 2006

I'm also going to vote selection bias. As an XL I often get pissed at the amount of S M L and XXL I see.
posted by the ghost of Ken Lay at 2:50 PM on July 28, 2006

Could this also be selection bias? I used to be size XXXL, and I could never find clothes my size. Now I am size S or XS and I seem to see much more XXXL clothes than before, and it seems the smaller sizes are always sold out first. I am not in the US though, don't know if that makes a difference. I also noticed some shops are better than others in this regard, but still, as occhiblu noted, if my size is left, it often is because that particular piece of clothing does not fit my body type at all.

I also asked in a shop once if they still had a size XS, and they said they usually only receive one piece of each in XS.
posted by davar at 3:00 PM on July 28, 2006

average female body size in America is actually about a L or an XL (10-14)?

It all depends on where you shop so it's probably quite hard to come up with an average unless you know your customers really well. At Walmart that's probably the average size of they sell but at Nordstroms it's probably more like a 6 or an 8.

And it definetely depends on what part of the country you're in and some stores may not allow enough for that variation. I'd guess that here on the West Coast the average is at least a size smaller. You rarely see a woman bigger than about a size 14 in my entire city due to a combination of the outdoor lifestyle and the large percentage of more petite Asian and Latina women that live here.
posted by fshgrl at 7:12 PM on July 28, 2006

I shop thrift stores (sigh, poor), and notice that very often the "middle" sizes are the first to get cleared out. Followed closely by the higher end of the large size. The incredibly tiny and the hugely big always have a bunch "in stock". That would seem to be less dependent on ordering vs. demand.
posted by jeribus at 7:24 PM on July 28, 2006

I'll say this-- Costco has perfectly decent cheap store-brand jeans, but finding them with girth < 34 inches seems near impossible.
posted by alexei at 5:05 AM on July 29, 2006

As a size 0 - I find your question odd. I think stores never carry enough small items and only cater to the middle to large sizes. I think stores buy 1 thing in 0 petite and if that's gone - too bad. I live in the ortheast and I'm 52.
posted by trii at 4:50 PM on July 29, 2006

I think a whole lot of this depends on what size you are-you are always going to think your size has the least. I work at Target, and we do receive less XS's than larger sizes. I learned quickly to spot items I really liked as soon as they got on the salesfloor and buy my size while I could, because XSs will almost always sell out before the item hits clearance. So even when stores do adjust for their consumers average sizes-there are more M's and L's out there than XS's-they can't always do it perfectly.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:04 PM on July 29, 2006

Best answer: In a previous life, I was a buyer for what is now the world's largest department store retailer. As an apparel buyer, one of your key job functions is finding the ideal size scales for each product (along with finding the right colors, styles, assortments, etc.). The problem is that size scales often vary by store location, style, and even season. This essentially makes size scaling an educated guessing game that is constantly evolving.

Most large retailers have at least a rudimentary method of tracking their product sales down to the style level and in most cases to the store level as well. That is to say, as a buyer, I could see whether buying that black bikini with the chrome clasps was the right decision for my non-metro stores - or "doors" as they're referred to in retail (yes, I bought women's swimwear, and leaving that job was a very difficult decision). Sales are tracked by bar codes - so whenever that bikini from that vendor is rung at the register, I would see X # of those bikinis sold on my Monday morning sales recap, and if I wanted to know in which stores, I could see that too. But I couldn't see what sizes sold.

I think this is still a key omission for most retailers - as far as I am aware, no one has set up their systems to track UPC selling at the size level. It certainly is possible, in theory, although it would require a lot more UPC codes (one for S, one for M, one for L, etc. as opposed to one for the whole style).

But even if you could do it, at best you could affect sizing at the store level, no the style level. That is to say, I could see that I need to carry more Smalls in Tyson's Corner, because they sell predominately smalls, but more larges in Rochester, for example. But just because all of the Small customers in Tyson's Corner liked the small black bikini last year, doesn't mean I should buy the same size scale for the tye-dye bikini they might not like next year.

So the short of it is, you're usually always going to be out of luck, unless you happen to be one of the sizes on the end of the spectrum, which usually sell slower than those in the middle. Your best bet is to ask the store if they can special order or if they can check with the store across town to hold that style/size for you.

Or become a buyer, where you can have the vendor ship you a sample of your personal size / style preference. Which doesn't work too well if you're a guy sourcing bikinis.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:44 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

"I think this is still a key omission for most retailers - as far as I am aware, no one has set up their systems to track UPC selling at the size level. It certainly is possible, in theory, although it would require a lot more UPC codes (one for S, one for M, one for L, etc. as opposed to one for the whole style)." - allkindsoftime

Target assigns every size an individual UPC, which is useful for tracking sales by size as well as making it more clear what sizes we have in stock at any one time. They can't be the only ones, I imagine-if a customer wants to know if you or a sister store has their size in stock, how can you look it up on the computer system if every size has the same UPC? I'm sure small stores are still physically walking to the backroom or actually calling the other store to see if they have the right size, but that's a major pain in the ass in any wellsized megamart, and hopefully every store will be doing this in the near future.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:06 PM on August 3, 2006

Again, I'm not going to name names, for fear of dropping proprietary secrets, but the corp I used to be with STILL maintains the policy of calling nearby stores and asking someone to look. The register computers have nowhere NEAR the functionality it would require to look up sizing.

I had a job offer with Target a few years back, and they do appear to be the Harvard of retailers - that is to say that they seem to have the most advanced business systems, models, and strategies.

I just couldn't do the living in MSP thing.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:18 PM on August 28, 2006

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