LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Little girls -- they've always been sugar and spice and everything nice. Now, more and more, they're plus-sized, too.
As apparel makers heed the call of increasingly heftier Americans, they're beginning to look to the youngest as well, launching clothing lines for larger girls. Retail experts say the trend is growing, and more stores are now showing an interest in catering to these harder-to-shop-for girls.
"It's just an untapped market," said Renee Forbes, a designer launching her new plus-sized girls' line, Jellybean of Miami, at the recent Magic Marketplace apparel trade show in Las Vegas.
Forbes, who started the line after being frustrated seeking cute clothes for her plus-size 8-year-old daughter, said buyers from California to New York had been visiting her booth and letting her know that demand is strong.
"I believe by next year you will see this in just about every state," Forbes said of her line, which features feminine dresses in fabrics such as eyelet and pique and bright colors like bubblegum pink accented with lime.
Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with NPD Group, said the children's plus-size market is not tracked yet because it is so small. Still, he said it could eventually become 18 percent of the total kids' apparel market of over $35 billion.
"All of a sudden in 2008 you'll see a plethora of brands and stores offering plus sizes for kids," Cohen said.
The timing seems right for more brands to jump on the plus-size bandwagon. According to a National Center for Health Statistics survey using data from 1999 to 2002, 16 percent of children aged 6 to 19 were overweight, and the number is growing.
U.S. chain stores that cater exclusively to plus-size adults include Charming Shoppes' Lane Bryant for women and Casual Male for men. But no large retailer specifically targets larger kids, although children's retailer Gymboree offers some plus-sized jeans, skirts and shorts over the Internet, where a host of small brands sell plus-size options for kids.
Torrid, a chain owned by Hot Topic, caters to trendy, plus-size women aged 15 to 35.
Among the stalwarts already in the plus-size girls' market are J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Sears, which carry "husky" sizes for boys as well.
J.C. Penney has been carrying plus-size clothing for girls aged 7 to 12 ever since Laura Batey, the company's vice president of merchandise for girls, first started working in the stores 26 years ago.
"We are the market leader not only in girls' plus but in all special sizes across all segments of the business," Batey said. "It is strategically a direction for our company. That is something we are targeting."
Key to that success is having every item sold in regular girls' sizes available in plus sizes, Batey said, noting that in the past competitors have stumbled for offering plus sizes in separate styles.
"At Penney's, we stress that the girls plus customer wants to dress exactly like the girl in the desk next to her. It doesn't matter what size she is -- in her eyes, she still is a fashion-conscious customer," Batey said.
With more fabric needed for garments that are cut more generously, price points are slightly higher, but less than 10 percent, Batey said. A $30 pair of girl's jeans, for example, sells for $32 in a plus size.