Why Are Discount Stores Full of XS and XXL Clothes?


My former Ph.D. student and frequent co-author Erik Snowberg sends along an interesting question:

Why do discount clothing stores (like Nordstrom Rack — and clothing sales in general) have an excess of really small and really large sizes?

I have to admit, I’ve always wondered. Erik continues:

The typical answer seems to be that there are more medium [people] in the world than XXL’s. Duh.

But the problem with this idea is that clothing buyers for stores obviously know this. And if they didn’t at first, they should have figured it out by now.

Hmm. He’s right — it is important to think about the supply side as well as demand. If there are twice as many mediums as XXL’s, then twice as many should be produced; and so it should be about as likely that a store will be left with excess mediums as XXL’s.

Here’s Erik’s explanation:

My best guess is that for some reason small and large people are, in general, less willing to pay for clothes. Maybe because they are outside of the norms for physical beauty, they believe that sharp clothes won’t help them that much.

Whatever the reason, a clothing store can’t set lower prices for different sizes, so it price discriminates by waiting a little bit and putting remaining stock on sale — which happens to be (surprise!) in the large and sometimes small sizes.

That’s a pretty interesting story, and it may well be right. But there must be readers with better information, or competing theories.

What are your thoughts?


Really you would expect economists to recognise that it just comes down to retailers inability to accurately predict sales numbers on low volume items -(As Mark said above)

Adun Ton

here are my opionions.
1. Most people have common figure, neither too small nor too big, so clothes of moderate sizes would sell quite quickly and easily. And even when clothes factories produce a big portion of clothes of common size and a small portion of clothes of excessive size, the clothes of excessive size will still probably pile up in the stores, taking into consideration the portion of different figures of people. The store would deal this in an efficient way, they generally don't have the patience to waste time and space for those unsalable or not-so-salable clothes. Finilly, those clothes of excessive size go to discount stores.
2. People who are fit for small and reall large clothes often have special figure, quite small or quite large. People like this are prone to wear clothes that make them seem more like normal people, which means a small person may buy clothes of sizes that are more or less bigger then his actually size, bigger but not too much bigger ,and a large person may buy clothes of relatively small or tight size, not too tight of course. This would also effect the sales of clothes of sizes in the middle or near the middle norms, and aggravate the situation in my point one.


Aditya Savara

I have long legs so require unusually long jeans. It's difficult for me to find jeans of these sizes.

When I _do_ find jeans of these sizes, they are sometimes in a style I don't like.

Stores buy quantities to anticipate demand. There is a larger sample of "Medium" wearers, who will consume the medium clothing. The odds of an outlier encountering clothing of their size _and_ style during the _finite_ period of time which it is on the rack, do not approach 100% as quickly.

If there are 2 of my size in the store, perhaps that year only 1 person like me will walk in. Perhaps another year 3 people like me will walk in. You can't just get rid of our special sizes with a sale. Need the right customer.

Note that unlike what some commentors state, in this model, mediums do not always sell out first. It's just that on average, mediums are left over less. Poster named Kevin (#8) was well on the mark in my view.



First, I do think that men's and women's are totally separate categories in the
clothing busines, 2nd, Of course the stores stock more in the "middle" range;
More average people-more average clothes.
And, 3rd, what makes me truly cranky is that they charge MORE for Women's sizes (meaning XL+) but not LESS for Petite.
4 -AND that women are not allowed to be SHORT but just "petite". Hey, I may
be 5'1, but I come from solid peasant stock. Broad back and solid calves, etc.


How do you quantify how many people who would have bought medium but could not because there are none left? They always run out of the medium to large sizes but always have too many of the other sizes. It drives me nuts when I go shopping.

Clark Woolstenhulme

Go to a Nordstrom's Rack and look at the selection of women's shoes in the size 10+ versus the size 5-7. The fundamental premise of this article does not seem to hold up. My wife (and her sister) love Nordstrom's because it is one of the few stores that stock women's shoes in size 10 or larger, but both women make a point never to walk down the rows of smaller shoes, because they'll be frustrated that the "cuter shoes" they see there won't be available in their sizes.

Maybe the designers don't spend as much time (and money and effort) on "sharp" clothes for the large and small because they constitute the tails of the distribution, so those customers typically shop at specialty shops or ONLY buy the clothes that do make them look best, leaving the dregs of XXS and XXL to rot on the racks of the outlet store?


Could it be plain old psychology? The idea of having “Options” on any product allows a customer to get a feel for what they want (even when a large percentage will end up buying the same thing!!). How many times have we selected a shirt we liked only to find that our size (S,M,L) is not available?

What do we do? We stick around to a) Ask the store manager when the size we want become available b) Check out other shirts from the same label. Both options are very crucial in making sure the customer buys a shirt. The fact that there are XXL and XS shirts in a line-up just adds a bit of spectrum while keeping the customer focused on the product at hand.

As human beings we always like to keep our options open and the idea that there are sizes of shirts on the rack which we may never buy only helps us in deciding. Therefore the number of such shirts may be greater than the actual requirement to act more as a blinder to get us to take a look at the product.

And hey!! the fact that extreme sized shirts stay on longer on the rack (as not many people buy them) allows for a free showcase of the shirt even if it is not wearable.

(P.S: read an article once about a similar explanation for the “I'm Feeling Lucky” link on the Google page. The conclusion was that if the link was removed it would lead to a fall in the number of Google users. Just letting the option exist solved the problem)



Seeing as the question came from a male, I would have to assume his personal experience is in men's clothing. In that case it would make sense that xs clothing is unpopular amongst men... many men I know are likely to go up a size bigger than they have to avoid being labeled "extra small"

Being an "extra small woman" I certainly haven't observed that smaller sizes are in more abundance on the sales rack at all, much to my chagrin as I am definitely a bargain shopper. It always seems like size 12 has the biggest selection for numbered clothing, and XL for non-numbered sizes.


I suspect it's a little less interesting than all this. Surely, clothing retailers have detailed information about how much clothes in each size they sell; if they know how many Medium's to stock to run through their supply in the target amount of time, they probably know how many XS/XL's to stock as well.

However, they may not be able to purchase that clothing in those same ratios. They may be locked into contracts that require each size to be bought in tremendously large batches (economies of scale) that don't match the desired ratio; they may need to order all apparel in the same ratio regardless of the specific product (ie, the default ratio of xs/m and xl/m is fine for plain tees, maybe not for ladies thong underwear).

Daniel Reeves

Brian at 20 hit the nail on the head.

Sellers overbuy just enough for each size. But once the items go on clearance, the supply is not adjusted to the demand of different goods because clearance sales are just to get rid of excess inventory.

Here's a mathy example: if your size ratio, from XS to XXL, is 1:2:3:3:2:1, then you expect to sell roughly two or three times more the middle sizes than the outer ones. But the ratio for shirts leftover may look more like 1:1:1:1:1:1. But the ratio for quantity demanded by size may not change with a price drop.


Tell me these stores that have a surplus of XXL because I sure haven't seen it. Usually it's just the little sizes.


This might be more compelling for the larger sizes, but it could be that the stores in which the XXLs and XLs are originally sold are using them as framing items rather than expecting to sell them. Assuming many more people fall into the large (or XL) bracket than the XXL bracket, these people might be subtly influenced by seeing that there is still a size or two above them. If people are somehow reassured by being in the middle of the pack rather than, say, being reminded that they are the biggest size there is, then this would give stores incentives to stock sizes that they don't actually expect to sell. Then when the season for that merchandise ends, it would make sense to send these sizes to the discount stores and see if they can make any profit on them.


I'm usually a Size S, but on a few brands I'm an XS, and sometimes I opt for a M - usually for sweater-type garments when I don't want male colleagues staring at my ta-tas.

Anyway, there are three sizes that may potentially interest me, and I would assume that M, L, and XL garments would also have a wide pool of smaller or larger potential buyers who might "trade into" that size.

XS and XXL, however, being on the end of the spectrum, would be of interest to only two size groups. Assuming that retailers feel obligated to carry a full spectrum of sizes - and you should hear how angry larger ladies get if a certain garment isn't offered in their size! - that would leave them with extra merchandise in both very small and very large sizes.


183 comments, hey? So what I've learned from the comments on this blog-- that Freakonomics blog commenters comprise a population that is significantly vocal on issues of size/obesity/image/clothes/etc and of, well, the science of insulting women.


I have not had time to read all the comments, so perhaps this was already stated.

The manufacturers should base their volume decisions on their experience with previous items, not with the percentage of people within each sizing category. The store buyers should do the same. This would obviate most of the comments that I did see.


An interesting question is raised by the graphic attached to this post. If we assume that size labeling conforms to size distributions in that target population (here, country of sale), should we expect that a woman sized Medium or Large in the US, finding herself in Europe, where her size--Large or XL--is discounted, will purchase the Large or XL shirts (let's ignore exchange rates for the purpose of this example!)? Or, might she actually refuse to seek shirts larger than Large? If the shirts are equal we might expect arbitrage, but if the size label "changes" the shirt's attractiveness, we might not.

The example given on XXL shirts is presumably taken from the experience of male shopping, as many high-end women's brands do not offer XL. On the other hand, I would guess the graphic is from an article of women's clothing, where I would assume XXS is more popular than it is for men's clothing.



Of course buyers know that most people fall around the average size. That's why non-discounted stores always seem to have some of every size.

But, in a discount store, people are more likely to buy larger quantities to take advantage of the deal. So, not only are there more medium sized people buying clothes for themselves as we would expect, but there are more people of all sizes snapping up discounted merchandise for the people they know (who, as it happens, are also mostly medium sized).


I think this blog is full of people who know nothing about fashion. The Nordstrom "discount" store is not a dollar store - it is full of high-end fashion. Same thing with Off-Fifth (the Saks "discount" store).

And yes, these stores are full of XS and XXL sizes. These are also the sizes that a person will find in high end stores. I have no empirical evidence but I imagine the reason is:

The two types of people who spend a lot on clothing are the young and thin who want to appear rich and the old and fat who are. I know, I know that wealthier people are supposed to be thinner and this is true - up to a point. Once the wealthy reach the age of 50 a sort of inverse bell curve seems to play out. The thin and the heavy predominate and the "middle sized" become fewer and fewer.

So to reiterate - the thin and young who want to appear rich (and so desire buying Armani for 80% off regular price) buy XS and the Wealthy and and fat buy XXL.

These "discount" stores only have XS and XXL because these are the sizes that their parent stores carry most.

Also, the few S, M, and L items get snatched up by the rest.

And by the way, XS is not unnattractive. XS is a size 4 for a woman - as the pop gets bigger so do the sizes. What use to be size 8 is now size 6 because so many people are fatter.



sizes vary. A woman may be a 10 in one store, 12 in another and 14 in a third.

When buying womens clothse, at least, you usually need to try on at least a couple of sizes.

If there were an even number of people buying (3 per size), and one of them had to buy a size larger, and 1 a size smaller, then the person who is an 8 wouldn't be able to go small enough, and the person who is an 18 wouldn't be either - so only 2/3 could buy.

Hence the overhang.

J Lewis

The entire question is based on a false premise. That premise being that there actually are greater numbers of XXL and XS items in discount stores. I am an XXL and have shopped exclusively at Nordstrom for many years. When they have the annual Anniversary sale it is critical that I get in to see my salesperson during the preview and reserve my items before the sale starts. It's a two week sale and anyone on either end of the bell curve that doesn't get there in the first 48 hours, isn't going to have much selection. At the stores closest to my home, 70-80% of all XXL and larger items are gone BEFORE the sale starts simply because the buyers purchase smaller quantities at either end of the size spectrum.

The bottom line is your asking for an explanation for a phenomenon that doesn't exist.