BOSTON - At first glance, the catalog's pitch for lawn chairs appears ordinary: A seated man and woman relax near a tree-lined lake shore, enjoying drinks. But look closer. "Supports up to 800 lbs," reads the text next to the man's $139.95 lawn chair.
Flip deeper into the catalog, and the products get even more specialized, such as a "Big John" toilet seat with a 1,200-pound capacity - "larger than any other toilet seat in the world" - priced at $124.95.
The products are in "LivingXL," an online and print catalog launched in May by the parent company of Casual Male XL, the nation's largest chain of men's plus-size clothing and apparel stores. Casual Male Retail Group hopes to parlay the marketing know-how from its 500 stores into the largely untapped market for specialty products that make life easier for the growing population of obese men and women.
The Canton, Mass.-based chain is the first large retailer to enter the niche, now served by a handful of mom-and-pop catalog and online retailers offering a limited selection of products with little marketing glitz.
For Peggy Howell, a 300-pound woman who runs an online store featuring art with positive depictions of heavy people, Living XL could help her more easily find products that give her confidence.
"When I'm trying to buy lawn chairs, I want to get one that's wide and sturdy," Howell said. "My sister and I share a home in Las Vegas, and whenever we go to a party or an event, we take our special collapsible lawn chairs. We know we'll feel secure in them, and comfortable.
"You can find these kinds of specialty things once in a while, but they're not always easy to find," she said. "When you do, you tell all your friends."
LivingXL is the new incarnation of www.SuperSizeWorld.com, a Vancouver, Wash.-based online store that Casual Male bought for $400,000 last October. Casual Male Chief Executive David Levin learned about the business while reading an article on obesity last fall during a business trip.
The switch to a new name was in keeping with the company's re-branding of its stores last year from the old name Casual Male Big & Tall to Casual Male XL - a move that dropped the word "big" to eliminate a term often seen as a code word for "fat" in the euphemism-rich world of retail branding.
"We knew from our Casual Male stores that they didn't like 'Big & Tall,'" Levin said, "and they certainly wouldn't like 'SuperSize,' especially with that movie 'Super Size Me'" - a 2004 documentary about an independent filmmaker's experiment eating nothing but food from McDonald's for 30 days.
Levin is trim, but claims to understand the daily challenges heavier people face, in part because the company convened a focus group of overweight people to develop the catalog.
The group helped Casual Male navigate the idiosyncrasies of marketing lifestyle products to heavy people, who often feel stigmatized about their weight even though they're greater in number than ever before.
An estimated two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, compared with 47 percent from a survey done in the late 1970s, according to federal statistics.
A public health advocate welcomes the marketplace's efforts to reach out to the growing ranks of overweight people, but also cautions against instilling any sense of complacency among heavy folks. Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.
"It's a balancing act between assisting people coping with the results of being obese, and not losing track of the public health message about being more active and eating healthier diets," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based nonprofit. "But if we stigmatize obesity, it makes the public health challenge that much more difficult."
Many heavy people favor shopping from the privacy of their homes over searching store aisles for such hard-to-find items as oversize bath towels and seat-belt extenders to accommodate heavy people buckling up for commercial flights.
"Anyone who sells in the large-size market knows how many customers are traumatized by their size," said Bill Mabrey, president of Amplestuff, a Bearsville, N.Y.-based online and mail-order catalog that he describes as "a mom-and-pop store" with less than $200,000 in sales a year.
"Often, people who need this stuff have a sense of hopelessness, and some are even afraid to go out in public because there's no place they can go and sit down in a chair without breaking it," he said.
Casual Male, which had $468 million in revenue last year, last month mailed 350,000 catalogs nationwide in the first of seven LivingXL editions to go out this year. The company expects to send out 2.5 million catalogs with items ranging from 500-pound capacity bicycle seats to large-button television remote controls and extra-strong clothing hangers.
Levin said his company must closely watch consumer response to gauge which products and marketing approaches resonate.
"We believe we've created something that doesn't exist," Levin said. "I'm sure this catalog will morph into something different than what you see in its first initial edition."
For now, Casual Male is bowing to convention by using only moderately overweight catalog models - just as most fashion catalogs feature thin models who aren't representative of the buying public.
"It's pretty much the way the world operates, for better or worse," said Levin. He added that he'd be open to using obese models if customers want it.
The market opportunity for lifestyle products is a mystery compared with the more established plus-size fashion market. U.S. sales of plus-size clothing for adults and children reached nearly $76 billion last year, and are forecast to grow to $107 billion by 2012, according to a study by Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based market research firm. But that firm and other research organizations haven't published information estimating sales of plus-size lifestyle products.
An industry analyst who follows Casual Male Retail Group expects LivingXL will ultimately pay off for the company, but not quickly.
"It's going to be a slow roll," said Thomas Filandro of Susquehanna Financial Group. "Their management is taking a slow, methodical approach to rolling out this brand."
Even with LivingXL's emergence, the market is still wide open, said Mabrey, of Ample Stuff.
"My response to them is, 'Welcome aboard,'" Mabrey said. "My suspicion is that between their sales and our sales, we'll only have reached 1 percent of the total market. Most fat people - excuse the term - have never heard of either of us."
Howell, the woman from Las Vegas, hopes other retailers follow Casual Male's lead.
"It is an underserved market, and one I believe more and more retailers will be taking a more serious look at," Howell said. "We need more than just clothing."
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