Living Large: Products for the Obese

One company has found a niche market and is changing people's lives.

Jan. 5, 2009— -- Carlos E. Galindo is a big guy.

Weighing in at more than 450 pounds, he thinks twice before sitting down in a chair.

Once, during a trip to the doctor, a seat collapsed under his weight.

"I am very cautious of where I go and where I sit," he said today. "Imagine the embarrassment of falling there in the lobby of a doctor's office."

So now when he goes to outdoor concerts or any other venue that might have flimsy folding chairs, Galindo simply walks out to his car and gets a special heavy-duty portable chair designed to hold his weight.

Galindo bought his chair from Living XL, part of the Casual Male Retail Group, better known for its big and tall clothing shops. He had previously purchased several chairs from big-box stores such as Sam's club but always struggled to get one wide enough or one that didn't start to break after a few uses.

"These things are crucial to the comfort of a person my size. It changes the way you are able to live your life," Galindo said. "I want that same comfort you have."

Portable chairs are just part of a line of accessories and everyday gadgets that Living XL has designed for America's growing heavyset population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 34 percent of Americans age 20 and older -- more than 72 million people -- are obese. That is up from 15 percent three decades ago.

And Living XL hopes to capture that expanding market.

The company's catalog offers wide bike seats, heavy-duty scales, giant robes, oversize towels and nearly 450 other items specifically designed for heavy Americans.

"We understand this customer, his daily life," said David A. Levin, CEO of Casual Male Retail Group. "If you're working in your garage, you need a stool that can carry your weight. If you're going to your kid's soccer game, you need an extendable chair to sit in. If you're at your office, you need an office chair that can support your kind of weight. It takes on so many dimensions."

Casual Male's main business is selling clothing to big and tall men. But in 2006, Levin was looking to expand the company.

"I was on a plane going somewhere reading another article about obesity in the United States, and some line in there that caught my eye about this dotcom company called Supersize World," he said.

The company was selling seat belt extenders and other specialty products for larger Americans.

"I went back home, looked up their Web site and it was pretty unsophisticated and more medical looking," Levin said. But within a few weeks, Casual Male purchased the company for a mere $400,000.

Levin and his team revamped the Web site, expanded the product offerings and started mailing a catalog to men in its database from the clothing stores.

"We found that the best way to present this was kind of as a cross between Martha Stewart and Sharper Image," Levin said. "It clicked from day one."

One of its biggest sellers has been a household scale.

Living XL offers several models specifically designed for larger people. First of all, its scales are designed to handle and register more weight. Then they have added features to let people know how much they weigh. Some people, Levin explained, are simply too large to see the scale. So Living XL offers talking scales, and scales with remote displays.

Then there are the seat belt extenders.

"A person has to ask for a seat belt extender. Well that's not the most pleasant thing to have to do," Levin said. "And if they don't have one or they've used them up, they won't let you on the airplane."

Now, he said, large travelers can just throw the seat belt extender in their briefcase or carry-on bag and not have to worry again.

The company also offers customers special products for oversize clothing. If you have a size 58 suit, Levin said, "you can't hang your suit on a regular hanger. It's going to hang over the edges." So the company makes special hangers.

"These are all little things that you, myself, we don't think about in our daily life," Levin said.

Howard Tubin, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said Living XL "offers a really unique and eclectic assortment of accessories and home goods." He said the product line includes a lot of things "that you would not think about" and that aren't widely available elsewhere.

Take the seat belt extenders.

"Where would you buy something like that? It's hard to think about where you would buy something like that," Tubin said. "It's a really interesting assortment of things that are tough to find out there for people who need them."

For Casual Male in particular, he said, it allows the company to gain more wallet share from its existing customers, and it gives them access to the female customer base. Tubin also gives them credit for improving the Web site and said it was a great purchase for the company at the time.

"In retail, being unique and different is one of the most important things you can do," Tubin said. "So to the extent that they offer things to their customer that the customer can't find anywhere else, that's a major plus for them."