Why Are Discount Stores Full of XS and XXL Clothes?

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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?

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  1. Katie says:

    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.

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  2. Clark Woolstenhulme says:

    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?

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  3. @shwin says:

    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)

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  4. Kathy says:

    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.

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  5. Nell says:

    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.

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  6. Aditya Savara says:

    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.

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  7. Adun Ton says:

    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.

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  8. echoclerk says:

    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)

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