(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When I became pregnant, I figured plenty of things were going to get harder as my belly grew bigger, such as getting a good night’s sleep or sticking to my workout routine. One thing, however, I did not anticipate: how infuriatingly difficult it would be to find a half-decent outfit.
A year ago, I believed the conventional wisdom that maternity clothes have vastly improved since my baby boomer mom and Gen-X cousins were pregnant. Now that I’m shopping for a third-trimester baby bump, I realize my faith was misplaced.
The maternity clothing market is a floral-festooned, polyester-laden sartorial wasteland. It utterly fails to account for either the varied lives women lead or the different ways they wish to present themselves. And the shopping experience ranges from maddening to puzzling.
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A post shared by A Pea In The Pod (@apeainthepodmaternity) on Mar 8, 2019 at 12:00pm PST
All of this amounts to an indefensible and avoidable failure on the part of the beleaguered retail industry. Great maternity departments should be an easy way to attract millennial moms — ostensibly one of the industry’s most coveted demographic groups.
True, newcomer websites such as Asos Plc and Boohoo Plc carry garments that reflect actual current trends. But much of what’s out there has a distinct, one-note look I have come to think of as “mommycore”: bland t-shirts, juvenile-looking babydoll frocks, uncomfortably low-cut wrap dresses, and flower patterns that resemble the upholstery on your grandmother’s couch. The industry’s idea of creativity seems to be confined to inane tops stamped with Instagrammable messages like “#Milkmachine” and “I like to think wine misses me too.”
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A post shared by Motherhood Maternity (@motherhoodmaternity) on Oct 1, 2019 at 4:26pm PDT
Women embrace all sorts of styles in everyday life — edgy motorcycle jackets, elegant sheath dresses, Supreme-inspired streetwear. But in pregnancy, they have little choice but to sport the mommycore uniform.
Need something to project confidence for a big client presentation? Ann Taylor has no maternity suiting to offer you, nor does Express or White House Black Market. Working up a sweat at the gym? Lululemon Athletica Inc. and Nike Inc. will be of little help. Searches for maternity gear on their websites turn up no specially designed products.
Now, you might say this is what specialty maternity stores are for: They have outfits for all occasions that accommodate a baby bump. But consider what women are in for when they hit up one of these retailers.
Destination Maternity Corp. is the corporate parent of its namesake chain, as well as Motherhood Maternity and A Pea in the Pod. The company’s revenue has nosedived as it struggled to adapt to changing fashion trends, the rise of e-commerce and new competitors. It has had five CEOs in five years, a mess that culminated in an October bankruptcy filing. Put another way, the one company that essentially has had the U.S. specialty maternity market to itself has been spectacularly bad at giving expectant women what they want.
And it’s not as if higher-end retailers are doing much better. Poke around the limited selection on the websites of Saks Fifth Avenue or Net-a-Porter, and you might think rich women just don’t get pregnant.
It’s more than the narrow clothing choices that are frustrating. The process of selecting maternity wear is a hassle. I appreciate that Macy’s Inc. and Rent the Runway, for example, allow me to sort their online offerings by trimester, a welcome acknowledgment that the clothes which fit me now would’ve made me look like a deflated balloon just a few months ago.
But the industry could do much more. More retailers should carry maternity clothes in brick-and-mortar stores instead of restricting them to e-commerce. Ariane Goldman, the founder of maternity-focused startup Hatch, told me she is opening stores because she found that Hatch customers spend three times as much in person than they typically do online. No wonder: When your bust and waist measurements are an ever-growing surprise, it’s especially helpful to try things on before buying.
For online customers, product descriptions should clearly explain how a “maternity cardigan” is cut differently than a regular one. Stores such as J. Crew, which curate a selection of regular-size clothes deemed maternity-friendly, should show a picture of how the pieces fit on a pregnant model. They should provide recommendations for whether to go one or two sizes up.
These changes are necessary not simply because women deserve better, though they do. They’re needed because they make business sense.
Kohl’s Corp., for example, offers a relatively small selection of maternity wear compared with rivals — even though CEO Michelle Gass earlier this year expressed a desire “to gain share among millennials, especially millennial moms.” What better way to get them to give Kohl’s a shot than making them feel fashionable in the run-up to baby’s arrival?
Similarly, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette has said the chain must do better with women under 40 — exactly the crowd that needs bump-friendly clothes. Yet it has chosen to depend on troubled Destination Maternity for much of its maternity merchandise, with the specialist operating 390 licensed departments in Macy’s stores as of February.
I understand that in some ways the maternity market might look unattractive to retailers. The U.S. birth rate has fallen, for one. Maternity is also a category where it’s virtually impossible to get a customer to come back year after year. Once you’re done having kids, you’re done with maternity clothes.
But that is simplistic. A future mom who goes to Target Corp. for its maternity department might end up buying a onesie for the baby — and diapers and groceries, too. Gap Inc. has found that maternity clothing customers of its namesake chain are more likely to be loyal to the brand even after their pregnancy is over.
The fashion industry is gradually awakening to the power of inclusivity in its products and marketing. More chains are adding plus sizes, using models with diverse body types or shunning airbrushing in ads. And yet, bewilderingly, this new awareness has not translated into paying more attention to the needs of pregnant women.
It is a reality I am acutely aware of: The button-up shirtdress I’m wearing as I write this is literally taped together at my belly. It’s my attempt to prolong the life of an item I bought less than two months ago, because I can’t bear any more hours on the internet or at the mall looking at clothes that don’t flatter me or give me confidence.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I typically enjoy shopping for new clothes. If retailers try harder, my baby bump — and countless other baby bumps — could be the birth of a new and lucrative customer relationship.
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Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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