Inclusivity and Retail: The Importance of Retailers Truly Understanding the Body Positivity Movement
As younger generations strive towards a more inclusive culture, they're still met with the overwhelming compulsion to fixate over their body image. One study found that over 60 percent of millennials prioritize the perfect body over career advancement, and another from Yahoo Health found that only one in seven Americans actually feel “body positive.” Retailers are starting to feel the pressure to do their part in addressing body image issues. While some brands have seen some positive results, either by including models of all sizes in advertising campaigns or increasing their size ranges, others are still fixated on the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. The time has come for retailers to prioritize body positivity in their business model in order to increase consumer trust and, above all, modernize the retail industry.
But where do retailers start, and what do they need to understand about how the body positivity movement is affecting their businesses?
A Lesson: The Lingerie Showdown
Over the past few years, a handful of brands have been actively incorporating ideas of body positivity and diversified sizing into their business model. One of the most prominent examples is Aerie, a lingerie retailer. Aerie was one of the early leaders in promoting the visibility of women with a range of shapes and sizes. While some popular magazines were busy photoshopping their models, Aerie launched its no airbrushing “Aerie Real” campaign in 2014. Fast-forward four years, Aerie reported a record high 38 percent increase in same-store sales for the first quarter of 2018. CNBC also reported that Aerie’s revenue rose from $200 million to $500 million in 2017, a triumph for the brand that can be equated to its dedication towards empowering its customers. Aerie is just one of the many brands making a concerted effort to understand their customers and adjust to the era of body positivity, and they've reaped enormous success as a result.
However, not all lingerie brands are revamping their marketing tactics to be more inclusive. Victoria’s Secret, a competitor to Aerie, was once one of the only players in the market, but has recently been criticized by their customers and the media. Having recently cancelled its annual fashion show — often condemned for its idolization of the “perfect” body type — Victoria's Secret has been slow to adapt to the changing attitudes of consumers. Victoria’s Secret is no stranger to criticism of its “sexually charged” ad campaigns and perpetual romanticism of the perfect body. Furthermore, the lingerie powerhouse has been accused of targeting its ads to men more so than women, with some suggesting that the brand's “sex sells” mentality is more important than the comfort of its customers.
Why is this impactful? For decades, Victoria’s Secret set the standard in intimate apparel. Now, S&P Global Market Intelligence reports shares of the Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works owner lost 12.4 percent in value in the first quarter. Victoria Secret's proven failure to adapt to the sentiments of the body positivity movement hinders its ability to connect with consumers and will have even more negative effects down the line.
It’s evident that retailers that respond to consumers’ sentiments are well-positioned for success, yet some companies are still lagging when it comes to connecting with their audiences. The case study about Victoria’s Secret is the quintessential example of how marketing goes wrong when retailers don't adapt to the changing tides of their audiences. Comparing both brands in the context of body positivity shows us that consumers genuinely do care about the movement towards inclusivity. Dismissal of those concerns negatively affect a brand’s success.
The Complicated Retailer-Customer Relationship
In order for retailers to move forward and evolve their marketing strategies, particularly as it pertains to inclusive apparel, it's imperative to first understand the complex relationship between consumers and retailers. This relationship has undergone significant changes in the past several years.
The fashion industry has been instrumental in orchestrating ways for teaching consumers what it really means to “fit in” society. With the rise of social media, in conjunction with the increased pressure to act, young people have tasked leading retailers to practice social responsibility and adapt to the changing times.
Customers are able to communicate with brands via social platforms, and this unrestricted access is of benefit to consumers. However, it also poses a challenge for retailers. Retail executives need to voice their thoughts on social causes, but only the “right” ones.
So where does all of this fit into the issue of body positivity? Body exclusivity is interwoven in the fashion community, and it's only in recent years that consumers have begun to demand more from retailers. Moreover, they won't stand for body shaming or cultural insensitivity from brands, evidenced by the backlash derived from recent racially insensitive campaigns. As consumers become increasingly vocal, and increasingly critical, retailers should feel the need to act on the wishes of their unsatisfied customer base.
There are steps retailers can take to promote body positivity in times of change, especially by addressing the emotional context attached to sizing. Shopping for clothing is a tense experience for many people. With ever-evolving fashion trends, consumer desire to fit in is at an all-time high. This trend is evidenced by this research conducted by Today, concluding that “the actual waistband measurement of a pair of women's size six or 28 jeans can vary by more than five inches, depending on the brand.” This variance leaves consumers feeling both ashamed and confused, which in turn leads to distrust or dissent of certain brands. Retailers can amend this by connecting customers with either brand representatives or personalized technology that would help give them accurate readings into to their exact body type. Not only will this make consumers feel safer and more comfortable in their own skin, it will also help brands establish mutual trust and loyalty with their audience.
Another way retailers can adjust to the rising norm of body positivity is by simply addressing all sizes. Many brands have grown to include plus-size, petite and slim lines in addition to their traditionally sized products.
However, according to the International Journal of Fashion Design, the average size of American women is now 16 to 18. Despite this fact, the standard “medium” size for women correlates in the eight to 10 range. Furthermore, a new poll of 2,000 women across the country conducted by Trunk Club revealed that 46 percent of women struggle with size issues that impact what they wear and what trends they’ll try, simply because of their body’s composition. As much as it’s imperative to address the fashion needs of plus-size people, there are plenty of women and men who fall somewhere in the middle and are often overlooked, too.
In short, the relationship between retailers and consumers is complex and fragile, but this doesn't mean that brands cannot adjust to this wave of body positivity in an age of inclusivity. Retailers from boutique stores to big-box companies will need to adapt to these changes in order to connect with consumers and create a more personal and comfortable shopping experience.
Related story: Fixing Retail’s Returns Problem by Cracking Down on Sizing