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Originally published May 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 31, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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New lifestyle catalog aims at the living-large market

Casual Male Retail Group is moving into the largely untapped market for specialty products that make life easier for the growing population of obese men and women.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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 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.

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.

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.

"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.

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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.

"I'm sure this catalog will morph into something different than what you see in its first initial edition," he said.

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 Amplestuff.

"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."

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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