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Side does matter

January 10, 1999


Marilyn Vala knows a lot about rear ends. They're a growth business.

Vala studies the size and shape of bodies to help Lear Corp. make seats for domestic cars and trucks. To accommodate the bigger posteriors of U.S. motorists, Lear has reduced the size of some cushions surrounding a passenger's hips and thighs.

Americans are bulging as never before, and U.S. companies are switching gears to serve the greater girth after betting--wrongly--that consumers would sacrifice to be thin.

``What moves corporate America is what sells--that's the only reason why they're targeting us,'' said Rita Farro, an author who wears a Size 24, a so-called plus size.

The U.S. population increases about 1.7 percent a year, so if food companies want to boost sales even 2 percent, they must get people to eat more--fat-filled or fat-free.

Fat does better. Last summer, Nabisco Holdings Corp. added fat to its once-ailing line of Snackwell low-calorie treats. Sales have stabilized.

Campbell Soup Co.'s fiscal 1998 earnings rose more than 10 percent on sales of Pepperidge Farm cookies and Godiva chocolates. Sales of soups stalled.

Liz Claiborne Inc. is making more garments with elastic waistbands and drawstrings--perfect for the Size 12 trying to be a Size 10.

Even in bed, Americans need more room.

Mattress makers sell more king- and queen-size bed fittings than ever. Sales of larger sizes rose 50 percent from 1990 to 1997, compared with a 23 percent total increase, according to the International Sleep Products Association, an Alexandria, Va., trade group.

Airlines also are making concessions. The typical airplane seat is as narrow as ever, but some newer seats come with higher tray tables that won't pinch bigger bellies.

Government surveys show that more than half of U.S. adults are overweight and a third are obese--the equivalent of a 6-footer weighing 221 pounds plus.

Some companies counted on the national weight gain to prompt a stampede to diet centers and health clubs. They were wrong.

Diet-center operator Jenny Craig Inc.'s revenue, for example, fell 4 percent in its fiscal year ended in June.

``People just get tired of a strict diet,'' said Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.

Rice-cake sales are plunging 20 percent a year. The $13 billion-a-year diet cola market hasn't grown in seven years.

Olestra, the much-ballyhooed fat substitute from Procter & Gamble Co., hasn't boosted snack sales as expected.

``It all comes back to taste,'' said Ken Harris, a consultant for Cannondale Associates in Chicago, a consultant to packaged-goods makers and retailers.

Not surprising, revenue at ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. rose 29 percent last quarter.

Companies ignore the public's appetite at their peril.

Taco Bell, a unit of Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., offered a line of low-fat food recently and effectively alienated the chain's top consumers, teenage boys.

Now, Taco Bell is back to high-fat beef and cheese, including a dish called Gordita. In Spanish, that's ``little fatty.''