Thanks for shopping, little lady!

Citing lagging sales, department stores are phasing out petite clothing departments.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
June 6, 2006 1:28AM (UTC)

Oh, how the pendulum swings! Remember when larger women were calling for stores to carry cuter clothes to dress the changing shape of America? Now, smaller women -- and a New York Times editorial -- are balking because many big department stores are eliminating or shrinking their petite sections. The retailers, which include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's, argue that the short shoppers (under 5-foot-4) are no longer scooping up those structured blazers and work pants emblazoned with the trademark "p" and are instead opting for the "more youthful, skin-baring and tighter-fitting clothing in the contemporary departments," according to Michael Barbaro's article, which reported on the trend last week.

The Sunday editorial writes that "The tall, the hefty, the gawky and the plain old disproportionate can welcome the littler ladies back to the fold of the underserved and downright ignored." And the editorial shuns store executives' suggestions that petite shoppers get alterations or have their clothes custom-made. Of course, smaller people shouldn't have to incur extra expenses, but the Times' outraged tone is a bit surprising, especially considering these stores, after all, are retail establishments, whose ultimate goal -- gasp -- is profit. As was the case with larger people, stores weren't representing their bodies until a critical mass convinced the retailers that they would be profitable customers to have.

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Cutting the petite departments represented a "sea change in fashion, forcing some designers to either stop making special sizes for smaller women or re-evaluate how much to invest in the business," wrote Barbaro. As the Times points out, women will vote with their wallets, and I'm sure the stores with remaining sections -- and a host of Internet retailers, such as ThePetiteWardrobe.com -- will benefit. Or maybe more petite specialty shops will emerge -- once retailers realize that a significant market still exists for properly proportioned clothing. Case in point: Although sales of petite sizes decreased 5 percent at the big stores, according to the market research firm NPD Group, they rose at small shops, like Talbot and Banana Republic.

Designer Dana Buchman pointed out that American women didn't suddenly get taller. Where there are consumer dollars to be collected, market demand usually guarantees that the wave comes crashing back. What do you think?


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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