TUPELO — “Big and tall” isn’t just for clothes anymore.
Americans’ growing waistlines created a need for plus-sized clothing, and now the furniture industry is catching on to the idea.
Lane Home Furnishings, for example, has a line of recliners specifically built for people 6 feet and taller and weighing 250 pounds and up.
“Our ‘Comfort King’ category is big business for Lane, literally,” said company President Greg Roy.
Phillip Demoran, the store manager of the Lane Home Furnishings store in Tupelo, said the “Comfort King” line makes up 20 to 25 percent of his recliner sales.
Lane markets its plus-sized lines through its branded stores, as well as big and tall shops.
“We have used NFL players in our showroom to emphasize size and scale,” Roy said.
“Shaquille O’Neal bought a couple of Comfort Kings for his house and John Daly has, too, back when he was heavier,” he said, referring to the basketball and golf stars.
At Room To Room Furniture in Tupelo, owner Lisa Hawkins said she’s also seen growing demand for bigger furniture.
“I would say we started seeing it about five years ago, and it started with the recliners,” she said. “I think part of the reason why manufacturers were building them was for economic reasons. Some of the chairs were breaking because they couldn’t hold the weight, and people were asking what was going on. So, furniture manufacturers started making bigger chairs for bigger people.”
La-Z-Boy, for example, sells a wide range of recliners, including what Room To Room sales representatives call the “Big Man’s chair.” Officially, La-Z-Boy calls it the Roland La-Z-Time reclining chair, but it does measure 53 1/2 inches wide. Other recliners are about 32 inches wide and up.
La-Z-Boy doesn’t market the chair as a plus-sized chair. In fact, Bruce Watson wrote on DailyFinance.com that a challenge furniture retailers and manufacturers face is “finding ways to sensitively market products to obese customers.”
According to a 2008 study conducted by the Franklin Furniture Institute at Mississippi State University, the furniture industry has plenty of potential in marketing and selling plus-sized furniture.
The MSU study focused on bariatric furniture. Bariatrics is the branch of medicine that involves the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity. Bariatric furniture, then, is furniture marketed toward the obese, but the study also applies to plus-sized furniture.
And the U.S. is a nation that’s getting fatter. Twenty years ago, only four states had obesity rates as high as 15-19 percent and no state had a rate of 20 percent or above.
In 2008, 49 states had obese population of more than 19 percent, with six states had obesity rates of more than 30 percent.
The Journal of the American Medical Association said nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight, and more than a third are officially obese. The JAMA study mirrors a Centers for Disease Control report that showed 33.3 percent of men and 35.3 percent of women were obese.
The MSU study found that “there are limited bariatric products targeted at the retail and home furnishing market. Companies interested in entering the retail bariatric furniture market should consider it as a niche market and build marketing strategies accordingly.
“None of these companies seems to have market dominance, and they range in size from large public companies with $37 million in revenue to small privately owned companies in the $3 million revenue range. Because of this market fragmentation, barriers to entry for new entrants is expected to be low.”
Tupelo Manufacturing, a contract furniture manufacturer that caters to the hospitality and medical industries, has been building bariatric furniture for several years.
“We have a lot of people wanting to know how much weight our chairs will hold,” said Carolyn Robison, a customer relations specialist and office manager for the company. “There’s a definite demand for plus-sized furniture.”
Robison said the standard width of most dining room chairs is around 18 inches. An up-sized chair might add 50 percent more room, making it 24 inches wide.
Tupelo Manufacturing also is working on a new toilet chair design for hospital use, and it, too, accommodates the widening patient population.
“The old toilet chair was 20 inches wide, with the plus-sized chair 28 inches wide,” said company owner Mary Werner. “Now the standard chair will be 30 inches wide – that’s two inches wider than the bigger chair that we made.”
And the width of the new plus-sized chair? Thirty-six inches, or three feet. That’s an 80 percent increase over the original chair.
Bill Martin, director of the Franklin Furniture Institute, isn’t surprised at the newer, wider furniture being made these days for both residential and commercial use. In fact, the institute has tested some of the bariatric furniture in its laboratories.
It also is nearly finished building a chair covered with sensors that will measure the stress at several areas, not just the seat.
“What we’ve found is there are no design standards for this type of furniture,” he said. “You have to know how the pieces are assembled, what materials are used. If you take a chair and simply make it wider with the same materials, that chair isn’t going to hold any extra weight. In fact, you might be putting additional stress on it.”
Martin said that designers and manufacturers of plus-sized also need to consider factors such as the “drop-down weight” when a person “plops” into a chair along with the strength of the arms and backs of a chair when a person rocks back in it.
Lane’s “Comfort King” line, however, is built precisely for the plus-sized customer. The line has a reinforced rail iron mechanism, coil spring support and high-resilient foam.
“Research proved that you cannot just build a ‘big ol’ chair’ and expect it to hold up in the home,” Roy said. “You must design and reinforce the mechanical parts to support the extra weight and last for a long time.”
According to MSU’s Franklin Institute, furniture companies should be careful in marketing their products “so there are no underlying implications that will alienate obese consumers.”
Room To Room’s Hawkins said many companies use “feel-good” terms like “cuddle chairs” or “chair-and-a-half” for their plus-sized offerings.
While companies like La-Z-Boy and Lane are more subtle in their marketing, other companies tell it like it is.
Brylane Home, originally a spinoff of Lane Bryant, sells an extensive collection of plus-sized chairs, including the “King Kong” folding chair designed to support up to 800 pounds.
Best Home Furnishings sells a recliner called “The Beast” and targets the plus-sized furniture buyer.
Plussizefurniture.net offers links to retailers that caters to the plus-sized customers.
“Being a plus-sized person in an average-size world can be a bit of a burden on anyone,” the site says. “Fining clothing that fits is challenge enough, but trying to find furniture that can accommodate a larger person and also be comfortable and easy to get in and out of is even harder. Everyone wants to be comfortable within his or her own home, and size should not be an issue.”