The Big Idea? Catering to Booming Petite Market

Actress Cheryl Ladd has appeared in more than 50 TV shows, series and features, and made it to the cover of multiple magazines. But when she goes shopping, she has a hard time finding clothes that fit.

"I find outfits that are just sensational," says the former Charlie's Angel. "And then I put them on and the sleeves are too long, the jacket is too long and I have to get everything almost remade for me.

That's because at 5-feet, 4-inches tall, Ladd is considered petite. And her struggle to find clothes her size is a plight she shares with the 43 percent of American women who are also petite, according to data from marketing information company NPD Group.

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Yet those 48.7 million petite women accounted for $9.5 billion of retail spending in 2001, or 11 percent of the $89 billion all women spent on clothes — not far from the cash spent by teens and plus-sized women, says Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld.

"With those kinds of figures, the petite market is one that's begging for more attention," Cohen argues.

A Growth Spurt?

The petite market has been showing signs of growth over the past five years, becoming the largest growing retail sector in 2001, data shows.

While the overall apparel market declined by 4 percent last year, for example, sales in the petite sector actually grew by 12 percent, heartily boosting the bottom lines of top petite brand makers Liz Claibourne Petites, Briggs, Alfred Dunner, Ralph by Ralph Lauren, NiGard and Tag Harbor.

A petite spurt could be helped further as baby boomer women with lots of discretionary income pass 50 years of age and inevitably lose some inches off their height, says fashion consultant Mary Lou Andre.

So why haven't more manufacturers jumped on the petite bandwagon?

Designers tend to get caught up in designing to the industry standard size 8, explains Cohen, and any other variations on the line either go upwards for plus-sizes or downwards for the missy-teen sizes in styles petite women aren't likely to wear.

The recent plus-size boom and the ever-growing teen and tween market explosion, along with the petite markets lower profile, and it's no wonder petites find themselves delegated to the back of clothing store racks.

A Large Debut

One petite publisher is ready to rise to the challenge and give America's shorter women a public voice.

Deborah Tumlinson says petite women have been underrepresented in the fashion industry for too long. And that's something the 41-year-old mother of four hopes to change as the editor in chief of Petite Magazine, the first publication run by and intended for those of less-than-supermodel stature.

"We're not all 5-feet, 9-inches tall, weigh 106 pounds and wear a size 0," she adds. "We want people to know that a 5'2" woman can be stunning, confident and successful."

Tumlinson believes the petite concept will be an easy sell, citing early data that would-be readers have already embraced the magazine, a quarterly which is slated to hit newsstands in early July.

In the first month of publicity, for instance, the magazine's online site got over 10,000 hits, and Tumlinson's office has been flooded with e-mails and phone calls.

"A 94-year-old woman even called me at home at four in the morning just to say how happy she was that now she knows where to turn to find clothes that actually fit her," she says.

Attending to the Whole Woman

Industry watchers like Andre are not surprised. "Petite women were always taught that they can't wear horizontal stripes, that they can't cuff their pants, etc.," she says. "But with a specially tailored magazine at their disposal, they can see that they don't have to drown in jackets, that the trendy pants styles can be cut around them and that they can look attractive."

And petite celebrities like soap star Susan Lucci must agree the magazine might help women focus and rethink how they look at themselves — she's Petite's inaugural cover girl.

But Tumlinson's vision extends far beyond outward appearance. Positive portrayals of the petite woman in her real environment are her biggest objectives.

"We feature celebrity petites because women like to like to see pictures of what they can aspire to look like," she explains. "But in every issue we also highlight the lives, struggles and success stories of executive petites and stay-home mom petites among others."

From Dream to Reality

While the magazine aims to empower women, some critics wonder whether Petite will be able to overcome to the bottom-line challenge of a struggling economy that has hit media companies particularly hard.

And, since the magazine does not accept advertising dollars from alcohol and tobacco companies, or campaigns that are sexually explicit, it may have an even harder time making a profit.

"This is a tough market," says fellow publisher Lisa Bentley whose magazine Business 2.0 analyses innovative business practices. "Ad spending is slow, direct mail marketing for subscriptions is costly and there is still a lingering fear of anthrax in the mail system," she notes.

Yet, if the investors and the editorial board of Petite did their research well and have truly found a way to address their niche, they have a chance of becoming a success story like current publication powerhouses InStyle, and Martha Stewart Living, Bentley adds.

Still, with so many fashion magazines targeting women, does Petite stand a chance when well-known brands have folded?

Cohen believes the publication has a chance to change the look of the fashion industry by providing a vehicle for designers to communicate directly with their potential customers and encouraging more clothing makers to enter the petite market.

But most importantly, Cohen says, it should be great for the petite women themselves. "Women will be able to read about other women like them and it will be a good way for them to share their war stories," he adds. "For example, letters to the editor and styling tips can include the fact that petite women can buy leggings in Capri length and wear them as regular pants."

Concludes Tumlinson: "I think we'll succeed where others have failed because we address the whole woman. [Plus-size publication] Mode and other fashion magazines traded solely on clothes. We're not just about fashion. We're about health, beauty and real stories by real women. … If we can make women feel confident in their clothes and in their lives, we've done our job."