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Research profile: Size really does matter

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The science of how and what we buy has always interested Assistant Professor JoAndrea Hoegg, whose latest research looks at the concept of vanity sizing - the phenomenon of changing sizing standards in women’s clothing to encourage them to buy more.

JoAndrea Hoegg

Consumers often make judgments about products according to what they see, meaning purchasing decisions are often based on salesperson aesthetics, the appearance of fellow shoppers, and product design. 

As a result, traditional design practices have dictated that consumer goods should be attractive in order to entice people to buy. What may be surprising to people, however, is that in some cases it is actually advantageous for a product to be ugly.

“It turns out that there are actual instances where people feel that if a product is ugly it must be for a reason,” notes Hoegg. “My research indicates consumers seek to explain the visual confusion they experience when viewing unattractive goods and so they suspect that the less attractive product must work better.”

This consumer-rationalization process is also evident in Hoegg’s research related to the process of purchasing clothing. She is investigating the trend of changing sizing standards in women’s clothing to encourage them to buy more, known as vanity sizing. For example, a dress that would have been labeled a size 10 in 1986 would now be labeled an eight.

This change has occurred in tandem with a reduction in industry-wide standards for women’s clothing. Hoegg notes that a size 7/8 at American Apparel is designed for someone with a 26 inch waist, whereas a 7/8 at the Gap fits someone with a 35 inch waist. These size discrepancies are having a huge impact on consumer esteem and perception of self.

“When shoppers require a larger size than expected, they experience a lowering of self-esteem,” she says. “The result is that consumers are discouraged from purchasing that item. Instead, they may try to re-establish a positive sense of their own appearance by purchasing other appearance-related but non-sized items such as makeup, nail polish and the like.”

These findings have the potential to influence how designers label their clothing and how sizing standards are developed across the sector. They will also be of interest to marketing specialists in the fashion industry and ultimately consumers who may be confused over the changes they have seen over the years.

Learn more about Professor JoAndrea Hoegg and her latest research interests.