The Plus-Size Furniture Market Expands as Americans Widen

Over the past few decades, as Americans have steadily grown bigger, their chairs have largely failed to keep pace. Facing a growing plus-size market, many furniture companies are now courting consumers for whom traditional chairs may be too narrow and delicate. Unfortunately, they're also finding that the big-and-tall furniture segment is fraught with unique difficulties of its own.

There's no doubt that obese consumers are a promising market segment. In 1985, only eight states had obese populations of more than 10%. In 2008, 49 states had obese population over 19% of the total, and six states had obese populations of more than 30%. In fact, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, over 68% of Americans are overweight, and nearly 34% officially qualify as obese. Health initiatives aside, Americans are continuing to get larger.

While big-and-tall shops and plus-size stores have carved out attractive profits by catering to the sartorial needs of heavier consumers, the furniture market has largely ignored the growth in the American girth. Most U.S. armchairs, for example, are 20 to 26 inches in width, perfect for a slender frame, but too small for many customers nowadays. Meanwhile, dining room tables, beds and other standard furniture pieces are often too short, too narrow or too flimsy for plus-size users.

Oversized Comfort Brings Joy

Although oversized furniture seems like a promising growth industry, it is also riddled with potential pitfalls. One difficulty lies in finding ways to sensitively market products to obese customers. Some online companies have decided that directness is the best policy:Oversize, for example, guarantees "Oversized Comfort," and notes that its goal is "To bring joy to people and confidence to customers." Meanwhile, Living XL is a bit more circumspect, promising to save its customers from "discomfort, frustration and inconvenience" with its products, which are targeted at "tall and plus-sized men and women."

The best-positioned plus-size company may be Brylane Home. Originally a spinoff of Lane Bryant, it is currently owned by Redcats USA, a division of PPR, a French retail group. Although Brylane is no longer associated with Lane Bryant, the similarities between their names allows the online company to be a little more coy about its products and target clientele. In fact, Brylane's website says the company is known as "America's White Sale Catalog" -- a year-round discount retailer.

Yet much of the Brylane site is devoted to "Plus-Size Living," and the company offers an extensive collection of chairs for obese customers. While some, like the "King Kong" folding chair, which supports up to 800 pounds on its 38-inch-wide seat, may be offensively direct, most are more innocuous. The company's "X-Wide Zero Gravity" chair, for example, is a 45-inch-wide patio seat that is designed to hold up to 500 pounds, while its Parson's chair has a 29-inch-wide seat and a similar weight rating.

It's worth noting that Brylane, Oversize Furniture and Living XL are all online sites, which means that their overhead costs are far lower than those of traditional brick-and-mortar companies. Brian Sozzi, a furniture business analyst for Wall Street Strategies, notes that online retailers don't need to keep stock on hand, which makes it easier for them to eke profit from what is still a comparatively small market segment.

'Where Comfort Reigns Supreme'

For that matter, mainstream furniture retailers may find it difficult to court an obese clientele. Larger customers who don't consider themselves overweight may be turned off by the terms "big and tall" or "plus size," while customers looking to fill their sprawling suburban estates with large furniture may be turned off by the "extra large" moniker. This could explain why mainstream furniture companies tend to be a bit more oblique in their marketing copy.

For example, in its description of one 42-inch-wide chair, Ethan Allen Interiors (ETH) explains its large size by noting that the "chunky, cushioned shapes would work in any casual living scenario where comfort reigns supreme." Another piece with a 32-inch-wide seat is described as a "chair-and-a-half."

The chair-and-a-half and "sleeper chair" concepts, which may camouflage plus-size seating, are fairly common. JC Penney (JCP) carries them, as do Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn (WSM) and La-Z-Boy (LZB). In fact, it's hard to find a furniture company that isn't offering larger seats, extended couches and other pieces of furniture that would be attractive to obese consumers. But, unlike their online competitors, these brick-and-mortar companies don't offer explicit promises about the load-bearing performance of their products.

According to Sozzi, another concern lies in the potential design risk of plus-size furniture. After all, true plus-size chairs don't just have a large seat, they are also more robustly engineered than traditional furniture., for example, uses a tubular steel construction in most of its pieces, as does Brylane Home. Ethan Allen and La-Z-Boy use more traditional wood construction, but the lack of explicit weight guarantees shields them from potential lawsuits.

While the big-and-tall market is promising, Sozzi anticipates that few mainstream furniture makers will directly enter it. Ethan Allen, for example, seems to be working on improving its production process, while La-Z-Boy is trying to expand its licensing. Both companies seem focused on their current price points and market segments. In the meantime, online retailers seem poised to take an ever-increasing bite out of their profits.
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