September 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Narrow Target

How plus-size Junonia.com goes after a petite market niche

A lot of niche retailers have found the Internet a good way to sell to a select group within a national audience. But at Junonia.com, it`s more than just about appealing to a niche. It`s about going after a niche within a niche.

That`s because Junonia is using the Internet--as well as catalog distribution-- to sell plus-size clothing, which itself is considered a niche within the women`s apparel business. But even more specifically, Junonia doesn`t offer a full-line of plus-size clothing. It has concentrated on active wear with some expansion into other casual wear--such as jeans and causal tops. So while shoppers find a large selection of plus-size jogging suits, swimsuits, sports bras and exercise wear, they won`t find any business suits or formal wear in any of Junonia`s catalogs or web pages.

Protector of women

The web is key to making the appeal to such a narrow niche work, says Anne Kelly, founder and president. Junonia started with a catalog, but Kelly quickly realized that a catalog didn`t extend her reach far enough to make a super-niche strategy work. "There are a lot of plus-size women who are beginning exercise programs or just starting to ski who need to buy active wear and we might have missed them because they`ve never shopped from another catalog before," she says. "But many would go online to find active wear in plus sizes."

Kelly founded Junonia in St. Paul, Minn., after she noticed that many of the larger women working out in health clubs and the like had a hard time finding comfortable workout clothing in the right sizes. So much of the active wear market was dominated by designers who were appealing to more petite women, she found.

In response to that need, Kelly, who had a background in government policy and finance with a master of business management degree from the London Business School, came up with a line of active wear for plus sizes.

She named her company Junonia, after the beautiful, rare seashell found on the beaches of Florida. That seashell takes its name from the Roman goddess Juno, who protects women. In art, Juno is typically depicted as a woman of large size and beauty.

With a name and a product line ready to go to market, Kelly began selling the products in March 1995 through catalogs. At that time, as she described it, "the Internet was still just a glimmer in everyone`s eyes" in terms of being able to actually sell products. But Kelly soon saw the potential role that the Internet would play in selling her fashion line to a national audience. But even she just wasn`t sure how big a role it would eventually play.

In the early years, Junonia had a static web site where potential customers could see a sample of the clothing and find a phone number to order merchandise or request a catalog.

New customers

But by 1999, Kelly was convinced the time was ready for a fully functioning web site where customers could view the full offering and order clothing and pay online. Now six years later, 60% of the company`s $10-million-plus in sales come via the Internet, according to Tom Lindmeier, director of e-commerce. He notes that much of those sales are the result of catalog customers who order online rather than calling a service center. Still, he estimates between 15% and 25% of total sales are from customers who are new to Junonia, never having received a catalog but coming to the site via web links or search.

And the Internet business is growing. Lindmeier estimates that last year close to 50% of sales came via the web, up from about 35% two years ago. He`s not willing to predict how high the Internet percentage will go, but he expects additional growth. "There are no signs the growth in Internet sales will stop," Lindmeier says.

Still, there are special challenges to selling clothing to the plus-size market via the Internet. While the web affords such customers privacy in that they don`t have to shop in a plus-size store at the local mall, there are size and fit considerations. Fit is an especially important consideration to such shoppers and the inability to try on for size before purchasing is a special challenge for online retailers pursuing the plus-size market.

One way Junonia gets around this obstacle is that it designs and manufactures its own line of apparel. Then, once a regular customer figures out what her size is in the Junonia line, she can be confident that other apparel in that size will fit the same. This sets Junonia apart in the plus-size apparel business as most of the competitors sell multiple designer and manufacturer labels. In such situations, a size 18 in one line may not fit the same as a size 18 in another line.

"Fit is always an issue for women, but it`s even more of an issue for larger women," Kelly says. "We`ve noticed that with many of our customers, on their first order, they`ll buy the same item in several sizes and then return the ones that don`t fit. Once they get to know our system, they will just order in one size."

Keeping cool

Also as part of manufacturing its own product, Junonia has more say about the types of fabrics that are used in its clothing, making sure that fabrics are chosen that not only look good on larger women, but also are comfortable for workout and sporting events. "We think the quality of our fabrics makes us unique in the plus-size market," Kelly says. "Our fabrics wear well. We know our customers often have a hard time finding clothing that they really like and feel comfortable in. So we have to make sure it is made of fabrics that are going to last a long time."

Additionally, Kelly explains that larger bodies generate more heat and therefore it is important to use fabrics that manage heat better. The Junonia line is made entirely of fabrics known to work well in situations where larger bodies are exercising.

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