OPINION: Fashion chains' savvy strategy to squeeze out larger shoppers

On occasions being both a professor of marketing and a consumer puts me in a position of inner turmoil. Take buying a pair of jeans. Despite retaining a relatively discerning eye for the latest fashions, I am also the proud owner of a 36 inch waist. This can often make buying the latest trendy jeans difficult because, in my experience, the latest trendy brands rarely exceed a 32.

It seems I am not alone. Toast, a consumer organisation set up to represent women who are size 16 plus, launched a campaign last week to name and shame some of Britain's leading high-street stores. Stores such as Zara, Top Shop and Kookai only offer their fashions up to a size 16, despite the fact that the average UK woman is a 14 - only one size smaller.

Kookai claimed that as the store specialises in skimpier clothing, anything offered above a size 16 would not sell because "many larger people want to cover up more". Apart from providing a splendid example of how not to handle corporate communications, Kookai is also playing a nice game of reversing supply and demand. It's pretty difficult for a size 20 woman to wear a crop top if nobody is willing to manufacture one in her size.

What Kookai and its peers are up to is morally quite wrong. Clearly larger women have every right to wear what their leaner friends are wearing.

But who cares about morals, let's talk about sales. Intriguingly, the '16 and below' strategy is also equally flawed in economic terms. Despite protestations to the contrary, the high- street stores are fully aware that a very lucrative market exists beyond the size 16 boundary. Marks & Spencer, for example, has made a fortune in the past 12 months from its Plus range. So what is stopping Kookai from manufacturing larger sizes?

The answer is marketing. Unfortunately Kookai has got it exactly right.

It knows its market: slim to average-sized women. It also knows that it would antagonise these women to see clothes offered in larger sizes. Kookai is neglecting the short-term economic benefits of expanding its market in favour of the long-term, market-oriented goal of keeping its customer base happy, loyal and buying.

I mentioned earlier my own occasional inner turmoil when buying jeans.

It's caused by my initial resentment that I cannot find a size 36. But then I acknowledge that any decent fashion brand should be doing everything it can to stop fat-arsed marketing professors like me wearing their clothes.

The marketing mix variables of product, price, place and promotion should not be used to increase sales irrespective of who the potential purchasers might be. Rather, the four Ps should be used to increase the market size from those in the target segment, while simultaneously preventing those from outside this target group from joining.

In order to understand why, next week's column will explore the other side of the equation. I'll report on a famous institution that is dying because it has failed to exercise the kind of marketing savvy that Kookai so cynically and successfully adheres to.

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