South to the Future

FAT OF THE LAND: First in a Four-Part Series

November 10, 1999

ATLANTA — Marketers are calling it Generation XL.

According to a report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control last week, the number of obese Americans rose nearly 50 percent between 1991 and 1998 to 17.9 percent of the population. But if public health officials are alarmed by this epidemic of fat, big business has taken the new trend in stride.

From redesigned home furnishings to flexible razor blades, companies are finding ways to cater to the 47 million Americans who are now significantly overweight. Spruce Brugmann, a senior analyst with Bain & Company, has been tracking the consumer goods industry for the last decade. Brugmann predicts that over the next 20 years, most manufacturers will be forced to focus on the needs of obese consumers.

“Call it the largest common denominator,” says Brugmann, “[the obese shopper] is the one unfragmented demographic that cuts across all geographic, class, and gender boundaries.”

Meghan Crabtree, a buyer for the Pottery Barn furniture and home accessories chain, agrees. Her employer has begun to restructure its inventory to compensate for the growing body mass of the average consumer. “You'll see softer angles in the sofas and chairs we sell,” she says. “At the same time you'll see more dressers with legs — no hard-to-reach bottom drawers.”

But it's not just furniture that will be retooled for Generation XL. A larger “larger” population will need heftier elevators, more tensile textiles and elastics, springier flooring, shoes that offer greater support, and bigger school desks, to name only a few of the products currently being refit for a fat future.

While companies like Canada's Ample Stuff have been selling plus-size home accessories such as towels and coat hangers for years, mainstream manufacturers may make such specialty retailers obsolete as the average size of products quietly increases. Because no industry can afford to overlook a full one-fifth of the population, large portions, expanded dimensions, and increased payloads are fast becoming the norm.

Economists estimate that in conjunction with e-commerce, the growing demand for a “supersized” infrastructure will drive economic growth well beyond the year 2020. Such estimates take into account factors associated with increased rates of obesity: mainly, a reliance on automobiles, an expansion of suburban sprawl, and the increase of personal computing at work and home.

Clifford Barrett, a public health researcher at the CDC, links the remarkable change in body size to a shift in working conditions and other economic factors. “People who work longer hours, who don't have time to eat right, who drive to work and back because they're in a hurry, and who don't have time to exercise,” says Barrett, “that's who falls into the obesity cycle — and, frankly, that's almost everybody.”

In fact, last week's CDC report identified “environmental pollution” as a factor contributing to the obesity epidemic, linking poor air quality to a sharp decline in the practice of outdoor exercise. According to the CDC, the acceleration of sprawl and an increase in commuting has put more cars on the road and discouraged the development of pedestrian amenities like sidewalks. That in turn has led to an even higher level of pollution, which encourages even more people to confine themselves to their cars and homes.

“It used to be that busy people got around a lot,” explains Barrett, “but now with online shopping, e-mail, and overnight delivery, we're swapping out legwork for keystrokes. And that's bound to have as big an impact on the body as it does on the economy.”

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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