How To Sell XXXL

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Pierre Sabourin, a venture capitalist and former amateur hockey player, has been so successful at losing weight, having dropped 165 lbs. on a rice diet, that he wants to share his secrets with others. But at 435 lbs., he is still keenly aware how hard it is for a wide body to navigate the many narrow armchairs and undersize seat belts of daily life. So even as he works excitedly to promote his just opened weight-loss camp, The Living Center, in Durham, N.C., Sabourin, 43, is operating a complementary business. He sells hard-to-find products to other folks his size at Looking for a scale that measures up to 500 lbs.? Sabourin's your man. Belly won't let you reach your ankles? Check out the extra-long shoehorns.

Sabourin has set up shop at a profitable crossroads. Today 65% of U.S. adults are classified as overweight, up from 46% two decades ago. And nearly a third of adults are considered obese (say, 190 lbs. or more for someone 5 ft. 6 in.), up from 14% in 1980. Any way you look at it, heavy Americans represent a fast-growing market with special needs. Until recently the business world's primary response was to pitch diets, workouts and potions to those determined to melt off the pounds. The weight-loss market grew to about $40 billion last year, from $33 billion in 1999, according to Marketdata Enterprises of Tampa, Fla. Even drastic measures are catching on. Last year 63,100 obese patients — including celebrities like Today show weatherman Al Roker — underwent surgery to have their stomach capacity reduced, an increase from 23,000 such operations in 1997.

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Few weight-loss efforts, however, show long-term success. So a new business is building for mainstream firms that aim to make a profit by accommodating XXXL Americans and making their lives easier rather than trying to change them. "I'm not handicapped by my body," asserts Elizabeth Fisher, 42, a 350-lb. computer programmer in Baton Rouge, La., who made headlines when she tried (and failed) to force Honda to provide her with seat-belt extenders for her new Odyssey. "I'm handicapped by stuff that's too small." That situation is beginning to change as more companies modify their products and services to win business from bigger customers. Among the shifts under way:

AUTOMOBILES Despite Fisher's experience, most automakers are highly attentive to changes in demographics and consumer preferences. The wider profile of the U.S. buyer is cited as one reason that SUVs and other so-called light trucks outsold passenger cars in 2002. "The quickest way to alienate customers is to have them rubbing against something," says Michael Arbaugh, a top Ford interior designer. The seats in Ford's already spacious Lincoln Navigator were widened an inch for the 2003 model, and the room between driver and steering wheel was opened up considerably. In its 2003 Focus compact, Ford narrowed the center console, armrests and map pockets in doors to accommodate wider seats.

DaimlerChrysler and Ford have for years offered systems for extending seat belts. Honda has made the seats of its Civic and Accord two inches wider in response to customer requests. Car companies are starting to think ahead about this trend, perhaps because dealing with design problems after a product has been brought to market can be costly. Volvo recalled 65,000 station wagons for repairs when it learned that heavy passengers might short-circuit a heating mechanism in their seats, starting a fire.

FURNITURE while studying census and medical data in 2000, designers at mattressmaker Simmons noticed that the average American is 10% larger now than when its king and queen sizes were introduced four decades ago, according to Don Hofmann, senior vice president of marketing. So Simmons placed a 66-in.-wide platform on the 60-in. queen box spring, making room for a wider mattress dubbed the Olympic Queen. Hofmann believes the model has fueled an 8% growth in sales of his firm's larger mattresses. His hunch that Americans need more room in the sack is borne out by industry figures. Although the trend has not been directly linked to the fattening of America, between 1997 and 2001 the U.S. market share for queen-size mattresses has grown from 31% to 34%, while king sizes (76 in. across) have claimed an 8% share, up from 6%.

Chairs of all sorts seem to be matching the expansion of the American backside. "If I take the seat of a recliner from 21 in. to 24, it will be more popular," says Cabot Longnecker, vice president of merchandising at Berkline, based in Morristown, Tenn. "There are just a lot of wide-bottomed people out there." Longnecker is constantly pondering design tricks to help him broaden his recliner seats without making them look like love seats. He is also putting the finishing touches on a 500-lb.-capacity lift recliner — which lifts and tilts forward to help the obese stand up. It will be out in April and priced between $899 and $999.

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