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Vanity Sizing: Why It Affects Your Retail Job

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Last week, I stopped by J.Crew to try on a polka-dotted blouse I had seen on sale on the retailer's website. Assuming I would need a size 4, I waited behind a woman browsing the additional-25%-off rack, watching the tag that identified the shirt I wanted peeking out among the rows of fuchsia, silver, and mustard silk. As soon as she moved aside, I swooped toward the hanger I needed before another lunch-hour shopper could shoulder her way in.

I pulled down the blouse only to find myself confused. The tag said ''4,'' but the cut was obviously too wide for me. I then selected a 2. This blouse also appeared too big. Finally, I moved down to the end of the row and took a size 0. Astonishingly, it seemed like it might have the right proportions.

And it did. As I stared at myself in the dressing room mirror five minutes later wearing the size 0 piece, I felt a rush. I can’t deny it. It didn’t matter that I knew J.Crew’s size 0 was clearly a few inches larger than average or that, as someone already on the slender side, I knew I shouldn’t have any reason to want to be perceived as thinner. (I do live in the Los Angeles area, though, where beach bunnies with modeling and acting careers on the side abound.)

''How sad,'' I thought to myself. ''Could I be any shallower?''

The Rise of Vanity Sizing

Women have been ranting and raving about ''vanity sizing,'' or ''size inflation,'' for years. The term refers to clothing retailers’ slow but steady shifting of their sizing guidelines over the past few decades.

Probably most of us in the US have heard this oft-cited ''fact'': what used to be a size 12 is now a size 6. At some stores it’s true. Back in the 40s and 50s, US standard clothing sizes were determined by statistical data. ''But vanity sizing soon started to play a role — largely in the 60s and 70s — resulting in the Department of Commerce officially withdrawing commercial sizing standards in 1983,'' according to Melissa Cassutt’s March 2008 Seattle Times article ''Vanity sizing: We’ll pay more to take a size ‘4.’''

A blog post titled ''Vanity, Thy Name Is Marketing,'' found at Planet Nomad, complains, ''At first, I admit, I thought [vanity sizing] was swell — not because I was fooled, but because it is fun to grab smaller sizes. Now, though, I’m just plain annoyed. I have a closet full of clothes that don’t really fit because I never know what size I really am…And really, do they think we are that stupid? If you need a new shirt, are you more likely to buy it because it’s a size 8 instead of a 10?''

Yes, anonymous blogger, yes. Numerous retailers have found that vanity sizing works when it comes to getting shoppers — particularly women — to happily hand over their cash. For many, the fact that it’s been going on for decades is proof enough that it’s an effective marketing ploy.

But Is It Really ''Vanity'' Sizing?

Some, however, deny that clothing size changes in the US have anything to do with vanity. Kathleen Fasanella, a patternmaker and consultant who has spent 27 years in the apparel industry and blogs at Fashion-Incubator, cites three practical factors that contribute to the lack of standardization in the retail industry’s clothing sizing: niche manufacturing, the death of an arcane patternmaking principle, and the natural evolution of clothing sizes.

In her blog post ''The myth of vanity sizing,'' Fasanella essentially argues, ''Clothing sizes aren’t standard. So what?'' She explains that specific manufacturers must create sizes based on target consumer profiles in order to accurately estimate their requirements for raw materials.

''A medium to a manufacturer,'' she says, ''is a reference calculation of needed fabric purchases.''

Furthermore, the sizing guidelines used before the 60s were derived from ''‘scale’…a patternmaker’s reference to use that given number on the back side of an L-square (a scale of aliquot parts) to generate the proportionate measures appropriate to that size, so these numbers were not arbitrary.'' Because this system is no longer used, there’s no rationale for keeping the old sizes, she claims.

Finally, the average size of people has increased over time, and Fasanella believes this means apparel sizes should change.

''To suggest that the qualitative measures that constitute any given size should not change over time is idiotic. Were this the case, we should still be using standards from the 1500s,'' she writes.

Why Retail Salespeople Need to Understand Sizing Guidelines

Despite the arguments in favor of not standardizing sizes, it still feels a bit ridiculous that I now own a size 0 blouse. Before my recent purchase, I hadn’t worn a size 0 since I was 12 years old. My estimation that I should wear a size 4 was based on previous experience with vanity sizing, and J.Crew still managed to provide me an article of clothing with a laughable label. If you’re a retail salesperson, you should be aware of vanity sizing’s impact and the frustration it can bring women who want to shop efficiently.

Retail sales associates working for franchises such as Banana Republic and Ann Taylor should know how their stores’ sizes measure up so that they can offer customers truly useful service. If you can estimate a customer’s size at your store based on what she ''usually wears'' or the sizes she wears at other clothing retailers, she will want to return regularly to take advantage of your knowledgeability. And that equals a steady influx of commissions. Being able to gauge customers’ sizes at a glance helps too, so pay attention on the job and work on developing this skill.

If you own and operate a retail company, consider your sizing decisions carefully. There’s something to be said for running close to the current average for your target customer and making the retail experience a bit easier for shoppers. With so many choices available, women (and men) can simply choose to shop for clothing elsewhere and never look back if they feel they’re wasting their time.
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Popular tags:

 shirts  guidelines  sale  thinking  manufacturing  retailers  matters  shopper  fashions  shoulders

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