Thinking Big

Canton-based Casual Male was a washed-up company in a dead-end business, until its new CEO boosted sales and got competitors racing to enter the once maligned men’s big and tall niche. How David Levin cracked the toughest riddle in retail.

David Levin is not a large man. He stands about 6 feet tall, with a 34-inch waist—fairly standard dimensions. And yet because of his job, he’s come to expect people will comment on his size. As head of the nation’s leading clothier of big and tall men, Canton-based Casual Male, Levin often fields questions from those who wonder, right to his face, how someone of his build can figure out the fashion habits of men twice his girth—which, when you get down to it, is precisely what Levin’s done. Casual Male is in the midst of a terrific fit of expansion, rattling off 13 straight quarters of sales growth. The fact that its CEO’s trouser size, rather than its financial success, is one of the first topics to arise in both polite and professional conversation indicates just how strange the business of clothing large men can be.

In industry parlance, “big and tall” is a market niche for men taller than 6 foot 2, and whose waist measures between 40 and 70 inches. Covering a wide range of body types, it accounts for about 11 percent of all guys. But as a demographic, big and tall has long been a neglected corner of the fashion landscape, and a place where a lot of the conventional rules of retail don’t hold sway. While seemingly every other segment of the clothing industry has been embraced by national chains, this one has been left mostly to mom-and-pops and small companies running no more than a handful of storefronts. For years this fact both baffled and enticed Levin. Why hadn’t others succeeded in selling clothes to big men? he asked himself. And when could he start?

Levin’s fascination with the big and tall business began long before he ever got involved in it. In the 1990s he was working as a corporate turnaround artist—the sort of hatchet man that firms bring in to trim costs and get struggling businesses back on track. When he showed up in Boston in 1995 to work for J. Baker, a dying shoe seller, he took a look at its options and had an epiphany. A few years earlier, J. Baker had picked up a woefully underperforming company called Casual Male; despite scant attention from its corporate parent, it was posting solid sales. Levin was smitten. He suggested that his bosses should ditch footwear and put their energy into oversize clothing. They did—which had the unfortunate effect of making Levin’s job heading the shoe division obsolete.

Levin moved on to become CEO of Needham-based Designs Inc., which was then running Levi’s outlet stores with little success. In 2002 he was struck by a familiar opportunity: His former bosses at J. Baker had run Casual Male into the ground, and the beleaguered business was ripe for takeover. Undeterred by the company’s propensity for failure, Levin repeated his old pitch—abandon the core business and snatch up Casual Male—to his new employers. Convinced by his certitude, Designs Inc. bought the company, sold off the lackluster outlets, and changed its name to Casual Male Retail Group, with Levin at the helm.

For all the time he’d spent pursuing Casual Male, Levin didn’t actually know anything about selling men’s clothes. What he did know was that the business was operating with virtually no competition. Casual Male had close to 500 stores, while the next largest big and tall retailer boasted fewer than 20. He also knew the company served—albeit feebly—a segment of the population that was only getting, well, larger. Thirty percent of the country’s adults are obese, and the percentage of overweight children has more than tripled since 1980. Not great news for our nation’s health, but the beneficiary of such a trend, you’d think, would be companies like Casual Male. Levin had always sensed a gold mine in the big-man market. Now he just had to figure out how to unearth it.

Of course, there was a reason Casual Male had gone bankrupt twice. Several reasons, really. Because large-size clothing requires a lot of fabric—which drives up costs—and because consumers will pay only so much for a pair of slacks, it has a relatively slender profit margin. It also doesn’t help that many status-conscious designers are loath to put their name on big and tall items, which means the market has historically been a fashion wasteland.

Once this underwhelming clothing hits the rack, further difficulties arise. With such a broad spectrum of body types to serve, big and tall stores face the Herculean task of keeping every possible size in stock. Then there’s the problem of getting customers even to want to walk through the door. Unlike women, who will often shop just to pick up new styles, most men buy clothing only when their old stuff wears out. Large men are even trickier customers to entice, since they may well be embarrassed to enter a specialty store that suggests to them—and anyone who sees them—that they’re overweight.

To address these challenges, and capitalize on the huge market potential that his gut was telling him existed, Levin began studying his customers. “My theory has always been, Let the customer tell you what he wants,” he says. Levin got a good idea of what they didn’t want when he noticed a disturbing trend: As shoppers were leaving his stores, some were covering up the logo on their bags. Levin needed to know why.

Two years ago, with cameras rolling and some Casual Male execs sitting behind a one-way mirror, a group of large Boston-area men was led into a room in a Back Bay office building. The company had been surveying customers for a while, but the members of this focus group were different. Their average waist size was about 42 inches—low on the big and tall scale. To Casual Male they represented an untapped revenue pool: Men with waists measuring within a few inches of that number make up nearly $4 billion of the $6 billion big and tall market. There’s a lot of pants to be sold to this segment, but Casual Male had typically been reaching much bigger guys—guys with no other options.

None of the focus group had ever set foot in Casual Male Big & Tall (then the full name of the store), but all had plenty to say about it. It was a place for fat guys. No, wait, worse: old fat guys. Group members were given a stack of magazines and asked to cut out images suggestive of the store. They chose Dom DeLuise. Danny DeVito. Larry the Cable Guy. Then the men—each of whom had a belly resembling Larry the Cable Guy’s—were asked to cut out pictures suggestive of themselves. They chose Keanu Reeves. Vin Diesel.

When Levin watched the video of the session a few days later, it confirmed a suspicion: His potential customers saw Casual Male as a blow to their ego. “I put myself in their position,” Levin says. “I know if I’m out of shape or going through one of my bad phases and I have to buy 36-inch pants, I’m miserable. Now take it to another level. Here’s a guy who’s been shopping, and now he has to make that walk into a big and tall store. How good does he feel that day? It’s not a great feeling.”

So last year Levin gave Casual Male a makeover. The company rolled out a new name, ditching “Big & Tall” to create the hipper Casual Male XL, which evokes athleticism more than girth. The TV ads featured a big guy besting a shorter, meeker companion in all sorts of manly duties: approaching a woman at a café, putting a Christmas tree atop a car. The tag line was “Why be average when you can be XL?” (Of course, the XL guy was more tall than wide, but whatever.) Erin Moloney, retail analyst for Merriman Curhan Ford, says the move was one of the company’s smartest so far—even if it was a no-brainer. “You don’t see any of the women’s plus-size retailers saying ‘big and tall’ or ‘big women.’ They wouldn’t even think of doing that,” she says. “It’s almost insulting your customer.”

Rejiggering the company’s image has extended beyond the name on the door. Casual Male’s pre-spring catalog, for instance, looks much like any other men’s catalog—right down to the models, whose waist sizes are modest, even enviable. On the cover, one of them is pictured standing, hand in pocket, squinting into the sun. He appears dressed for a day of boating, his sleeves rolled up so he can feel the ocean breeze. He’s got the look of a man on the move.

Filling catalogs with attractive models is hardly revolutionary. But what Casual Male is up to is different: These guys are built nothing like the big fellas who’ll use the catalog to buy pants with a 65-inch waist. And the customers seem to love it. Sales data prove that catalogs showing thicker models are worse at selling clothes than ones with fitter guys. It’s no accident these models are not unlike the svelte guys whose pictures were clipped by that focus group. Levin admits they’re the kind of man he wants most—the kind who doesn’t even realize he belongs in a Casual Male store.

In a strip mall off Route 1A in Dedham, a Casual Male XL outpost sits next to a women’s plus-size clothing store called the Avenue. Couples often come here and split up, reconvening later with large bags full of large clothes. On a recent weekday morning, a few well-dressed men were wandering around the Casual Male store—a spacious, colorful place with mannequins wearing 2XL shirts and 46×32 pants—and draping selections over their arms. Green Day played through the speakers.

A decade ago, most Casual Male clothes came in four colors: blue, black, gray, and brown. It was as if to say, “You’re portly; keep a low profile.” Store displays reflected a similar disdain for creativity, as merchandise was divvied up supermarket style: pants on one side, shirts on the other. By contrast, today’s more colorful and varied offerings—a mix of name brands and Casual Male’s private labels—are lined up side by side.

They’re also stocked with an attention to detail that might be lost on the lay shopper. Space has long posed a unique challenge for the company, because inventory is tougher to manage in the big and tall market than in any other segment of retail. A pair of pants can come in 49 different sizes, and a single shirt in 11, whereas the Gap, say, might stock about half that. If every possible size and color combination were crammed into the store, the place would look like a warehouse. On the other hand, if a customer can’t find the size he needs, he won’t be a customer for long. “What nobody recognized was that this is a size-management business,” says Levin. To solve that logistical puzzle, he took two years and $15 million to build a system that tracks every individual item sold at every store. The idea was to create a profile of each location’s customer base, then use that data to stock that store.

The company’s also experimenting with simplifying sizing for guys who detest dressing rooms. It has “universalized” sizing across all its brands, meaning that the in-house label 626 Blue will fit like the same size of Nauticas. It’s a nifty trick to make shopping more comfortable, one that department stores haven’t thought to try.

Casual Male’s innovations are paying off: In the past year its stock has nearly doubled and sales have jumped by more than 10 percent. Levin has gone so far as to declare that the company’s retooling will allow it to grow its share of the market by 50 percent in the next few years. The average age of its customers is dropping, and Casual Male, for the first time ever, is even beginning to attract back-to-school shoppers. That’s made Levin especially happy: In his industry, a high school cafeteria might as well be a Fashion Week runway.

If there’s one person who never questioned whether a guy of Levin’s size could understand big customers, it’s Jared Margolis. Like Levin, he’s a comparatively slender guy who saw an untapped market in big and tall clothing, and now custom-designs high-end suits for large men. Margolis runs Jared M. Custom Clothing, tailoring wardrobes for men whose body size matches that of their wallet (many are professional athletes). The average Jared M. customer spends $40,000 a year; some spend upward of $250,000.

Businesses like Margolis’s used to pose a threat to Casual Male. Every big guy out there who was worth using as a spokesperson had his clothes tailor-made. The best that Casual Male could muster was inveterate endorsement hog George Foreman, whose contract expired last year. But now Casual Male has the cash to extend its reach to all types of men, so last year it bought Jared M. The official launch party was at last month’s NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas, where players were offered free fittings. The acquisition will dovetail well with another high-end company Casual Male recently bought, Rochester Big & Tall. That chain has 25 stores and sells brands like Burberry and Joseph Abboud, which are inching into the oversize niche now that Casual Male has demonstrated there’s real money to be made there.

As Casual Male finds ways to rack up ever larger revenues, it may not enjoy free rein in the market for much longer. Retail analyst Moloney says challengers will soon be coming from all angles: more mainstream stores expanding their sizes, and more specialty chains popping up to try to steal Levin’s thunder. This spring Macy’s is offering some of its private-label shirts in big sizes. Others will follow. For big guys, this is all good news. And for Casual Male, at least over the short term, the buzz around its once stodgy market can’t be a bad thing.

On a recent weekend at the Burlington Casual Male, multicolored clothes spilled from the bear hug of an appropriately large customer as he meandered to the register, where he plopped them all down. He made small talk with the clerk, paid, then took his bag and walked out—walked out with the bag in plain view. The scene looked like nothing special, no different from any other store selling clothing to any other man. It looked just the way Levin imagined it might.