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. Sam says:

    I have a friend who imports wholesale clothes into the UK and he explained this to me once. There is apparently a LOT of poor quality control on sizes when you order from cheap factories overseas. So its pretty common to have an entire batch of Medium shirts which turn out to be Large, no problem if they catch it as they just relabel them on ship them. But if the items have been made beyond the last size (ie smaller than XS or larger than XXL) then there is nothing they can do except sell it via a discounter. This is why you get dispropotionate numbers of the extreme sizes, some brands only go up to XL and for those you’ll find a glut of XLs on the clearence rails. This is why you really need to try on the actual item you’re buying in discounters like Ross and TJMaxx. Even if you try on one XLL shirt you may find that antoher doesn’t fit if you buy two….

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  2. Talyssa says:

    I’ve never been a big clothes spender. I have a small set of outfits for work and jeans and stylish tshirts for the rest of the time. When I started this job 3 years ago and was 40 pounds lighter (yes, really) I enjoyed looking at clothes in stores, putting together my few outfits, and so on.

    40 pounds later, I walk into a store, find a pair of pants that’s comfortable, buy it in two colors, a couple of shirts that will be appropriate for work, and thats about it. I don’t want to own more than that in this size, and although I think Adam’s comment applies a little bit, its more that when you’re heavy clothes are just a way to not get arrested in public for a lot of us. But the stores have to carry at least a few of that size in every section so there’s bound to be leftovers.

    RE: XS sizes I think there aren’t really that many people who are that small, but again they have to carry at least a few of that size in each style.

    BY THE WAY would you all PLEASE stop saying its because fat people are poor? Yeesh. Lower income people are MORE LIKELY to be overweight, but it doesn’t mean that overweight people are of lower income.

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  3. Bill says:

    My own experience, from being a male 2x and larger, is that we don’t shop for clothes in mainstream stores. I have been surprised to find small quantities of larger sizes in mainstream stores; but often only in “super-center” stores. So when in need of new clothes, I will head for the “big and tall” stores that cater to me rather than waste my time going to Target.

    If we’re not shopping there, then they ain’t selling what they got!

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  4. DanC says:

    One I’m not sure that discount stores are full of XXL and XXS clothes.

    Still, it could be that medium size close sell out faster at discount stores then more extreme sizes. People in the middle just buy more clothes.

    It could be that medium size people are more fashion conscience on average and buy hot trends while people at the extremes are less likely to follow changing tastes.

    Medium people are more alike. Large and small people are large and small in different ways (apple shape Vs pear shape etc). So buyers may just have a hard time finding clothes which look good on medium people that will still look good on smaller or larger people.

    If much of the cost of clothing for manufacturers is in the choice of style and color and the marginal cost of making different sizes is small then you might risk that people on the extremes might buy your product and you can still make a profit even with deep discounts.

    Look at shoes. Even if bigger shoes cost more to make, manufacturers don’t charge more for bigger shoes (in most cases.) That indicates that the marginal cost of offering various sizes is very small.

    Lastly, it may be easy to price discriminate on the basis of size, as long as you don’t make it too obvious.

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  5. Anna Kuperberg says:

    As an XS person, I have often wondered about this. My guess is that it’s more expensive to make clothes in small runs than in large runs. So if they’re going to make odd sizes at all, it’s doesn’t cost much more to make too many of them.

    On the other hand, whenever I go into a retail store looking at regularly priced clothes, I have a HARD time finding my size. And if I’m looking for a designer brand, then forget it, they won’t even bother making my size. Designer clothes also tend to be for taller people. (Are there more short-length pants on the discount racks? I wonder).

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  6. Alex says:

    From my experience shopping in discount stores, if you hit them on the days that new clothes come in, the medium/large racks have about the same amount of newer stuff as the xs/xl/xxl racks do, but the clothes on those middle racks go MUCH faster as there are many more people shopping in the mid-range size category! I used to be an XL and am now a M/L — discount stores were my favorite when I was larger as I could always find something liked for a reasonable price — since I was convinced that I’d loose the weight and not be wearing the clothes for long (LOL)! Only took half a decade, but now, as a M/L, it takes more effort and luck as I have to go on days they get their new merchandise in, else it’s gone too quickly! Even regular department stores are tough sometimes!

    Such a conundrum!

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  7. Al says:

    I’m in the closing business and size run issues are a major variance that we deal with. A typical retailer will purchase a suggested “size run” that looks something like 1 Small/2Medium/2Large/1 XL etc, with extended sizes getting less play. In general, retailers on the coasts tend to buy more of the smaller sizes and retailers elsewhere buy more of the larger sizes.

    Elizabeth in #6 hit on part of the issue. Most customers are in the market for medium and large apparel. Unless the apparel is specifically marketed to the extended sizing, there is less demand, and the process of adding extended sizes offers only a marginal benefit to the manufacturer.

    There is also a cost associated with making larger clothing, (more fabric, shipping etc,) and a discount with smaller sizes, but retailers and manufacturers choose to keep their transaction costs lower by offering one price across the entire size scale.

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  8. Erika says:

    I like Erik’s answer, but I think he’s answering the wrong question. Thinner and better looking people are certainly more willing to pay more money for clothes, which is why upscale women’s stores rarely sell sizes above 8 or 10 – when the average woman wears a size 14. (Try this experiment sometime next time you are idling in such a store – look at the distribution of sizes on the rack – you’ll see a lot of 2, 4, and 6s and not a lot of anything else.)

    The excess of size XS and XL on sales racks and discount stores has always been explained to me as a product of clothing being sold in lots – typically retailers can’t just order certain amounts of clothing sizes. So I don’t think retailers can actually adjust their distribution of available sizes for their particular shopping demographic as flexibly as they would like. My guess is that you’ll find more larger clothes discounted if you live in a thinner region of the country, more smaller clothes if you live in Wisconsin.

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