In 1986, when the Home Shopping Network first sold shares to the public, the television channel also began offering apparel for larger women. The idea was to appeal to a group that was too embarrassed to buy in stores.
Today, the number of obese Americans has doubled to almost 60 million. And Home Shopping Network sells 60 "plus-size" women's items, accounting for almost half the clothes sold over the network, said June Saltzman. She's vice president of merchandising at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company, now called HSN as part of Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp.
"Plus-size was treated horribly," she said of merchandising in clothing stores. "It was situated next to luggage or the candy department. It was a tough environment for these girls."
The plus-size industry, which market research firm NPD Group Inc. says was worth $30 billion in 2003, has grown more than 30 percent in the past decade even as the overall apparel market has shrunk. Potential customers are the 64 percent of U.S. adults who are overweight.
The industry's growth has occurred as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounds the alarm that obesity may overtake smoking as the top cause of preventable death, and fast-food companies such as McDonald's Corp. eliminate Super Size menu items.
The low-carbohydrate Atkins diet is so popular that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. has blamed the eating program for falling sales.
From Texas to New Jersey, companies are selling extra-wide umbrellas, seatbelt extenders, scales that can weigh people as heavy as 1,000 pounds, "size-friendly" vacation resorts and gadgets to aid in putting on socks. Engineers at automakers including Ford Motor Co. say the expanding American waistline may guide future car designs.
Plus-size apparel - clothes larger than the average U.S. size range of 2 to 12 for women - make up more than 90 percent of the market for all goods sold to the overweight, according to retail analyst Marshal Cohen of Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD. Sales of oversized clothes from lingerie to prom dresses have increased 5 percent a year this decade as the U.S. clothing market has contracted 9.8 percent to $165 billion, Cohen said.
"In 1985, the most popular size was an 8 for women's sportswear," he said. "In 2003, it's a size 14."
Excess weight is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, sleep disorders and arthritis, according to the Atlanta-based CDC.
About 400,000 American deaths in 2000 stemmed from poor diet and lack of exercise, an increase of 100,000 from 1990, the federal agency said in March.
"Obesity is leading to more deaths than any other thing in America," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, 62, said in an interview. "It is going to exceed this year the number of deaths that are caused by tobacco, and we have to do something about it."
The numbers of overweight Americans won't diminish soon, if diet histories are any guide. About 95 percent of dieters usually gain back their lost weight within a year, said Kelly Brownell, head of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.
"These are people who have legitimate needs, whether they're battling the bulge or not," said Gary Epstein, chief executive of market-research consultant RSCG Tatham Partners in Chicago and author of Globesity, a 2003 study. "They're saying, 'Hey, I need clothing, I need larger seats - I'm prepared to pay.'"
Clothing retailers such as Macy's and Bloomingdale's, owned by Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc., and San Francisco-based Gap Inc. are offering apparel as big as size 20 and XXXL, once non-existent in many mainstream stores.
Torrid, a plus-size retailer owned by mall-based specialty retailer Hot Topic Inc., based in City of Industry, Calif., has opened 60 stores since it started in 2001 and is planning to launch 25 more this year.
Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., the maker of North Face and JanSport outdoor gear, has recorded sales of $25 million of its Curvation brassiere, a garment for plus-size women, since introducing it early last year, said spokeswoman Cindy Knoebel. The bra is being sold in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. outlets in the United States, Knoebel said.
Casual Male Retail Group Inc., based in Canton, Mass., sells George Foreman waist-relaxer slacks as well as polo-style shirts at sizes that are as much as eight sizes up from extra-large - that's XXXXXXXXL - at its big-and-tall men's stores, Chief Executive Officer David Levin said.
"Demand continually seems to be growing," Levin said.
Mike Liedka, 61, a furniture wholesaler, is one of a rising number of plus-sized entrepreneurs who created products they couldn't find anywhere else.
Liedka, who has a 56-inch waistline, used to wear out a couch every few years because he couldn't find one durable enough for his 6-foot-5-inch, 350-pound build. Last year, he conceived of an eight-legged frame for a couch to seat a 500-pound person. He had a prototype built in October and began selling the sofas in December through a company in the San Antonio area that he named WideBodies Furniture.
"A 400-pound woman came to our showroom, and after she had sat on one of the couches, she came over and hugged me and said I had saved her life," Liedka said.
William Fabrey, a 5-foot- 10-inch, 230-pound engineering consultant, runs a mail-order business and Web site, amplestuff.com, for larger people. Among his best-sellers is a $299 scale for weighing people as heavy as 1,000 pounds.
While U.S.-based automakers haven't begun designing vehicles for larger people, it may come to that, engineers said.
"If the trend keeps increasing, you're going to have a lot more challenges," said Christian Civiero, 30, a Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford ergonomics engineer who has helped design the interiors of the automaker's cars and vans for the past five years. "The customer base may end up polarizing itself, and the automakers will have to decide, 'Which customer are you going to please the most?'"
Rene Rousseau, a 5-foot- 6-inch, 450-pound technical writer for Southwest Airlines Co. from Denton, Texas, said she can't fit into a sport-utility vehicle so she drives a modified four-door 2002 Chevrolet Silverado truck with seats that slide back farther and a steering wheel that is just 10 inches in diameter.
"My husband and I ended up with a pickup truck because you can't get a car without bucket seats - it's difficult getting in and out of a car," said Rousseau, 40. "And the smaller steering wheel doesn't cut into the abdomen."
Rousseau's purchases have included a couch from Liedka's company, a reaching aid from Fabrey's site and 90-inch-long bath towels from Zaftique.com, a Web site selling clothing and general goods for large people.
Necessity prompted 380-pound Tim Barry, 54, to start Intelligent Technologies Inc., a maker of seat-belt extenders for airlines. The Vancouver, Wash., company sells 150 to 200 extenders a month for $59.95 each, he said.
Still, the market for plus-sized products is surpassed by the weight-loss industry. A 2002 study by Tampa, Fla.-based Marketdata Enterprises estimated the size of the U.S. market for weight-loss programs, diet pills, low-calorie foods and health clubs at $40 billion and forecast it would grow to $48.8 billion by 2006.
Even some proponents of fair treatment for the obese said they're ambivalent about the new products. Advocacy groups fear that while the products may improve quality of life, they may also obscure the risk of disease and death caused by excessive weight.
"You can accommodate people," said Morgan Downey, executive director of the Washington-based American Obesity Association. "But at the same time, you have to recognize the serious health consequences of not attending to weight-loss efforts."