Fat profits: Business embraces big people

By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service

image captionThe World Health Organization says at least 1.5 billion adults globally are overweight or obese

Obesity is a relatively modern epidemic which demands different approaches and there are many companies which have realised that profits can be gained by catering for overweight people.

Pharmaceutical companies have raced to develop products to help weight loss while bariatric surgery, which reduces or bypasses the stomach, has developed rapidly as a medical way of helping people lose fat.

In the UK, hospitals have imported supersize operating tables from the US.

Special hoists, stretchers and ambulances have been bought to ferry the largest patients to hospital.

New solutions

US businessman Scott Kramer spotted the potential for profit in the growing new market for products for larger people.

"The first product that we manufactured was the Big John toilet seat," he says.

The seat is 19in (48.3cm) wide while a regular toilet seat is about 14in wide, which provides 75% more sitting area.

"Our toilet seats have either an 800lb (363kg) or a 1,200lb capacity, so they will not bend or break," says Mr Kramer.

"People are just getting larger and, as the developing world gets richer, they start changing their lifestyle. They want to eat the things that we eat. And they go from riding a bicycle to driving a car. So, their caloric intake is going to increase, their exercise is going to decrease, and the natural progression of that is to get heavier," he explains.

He strives to come up with additional products that will help make the lives of larger people easier.

Products he sells include special items to ensure personal hygiene for people who cannot reach some parts of their body to wash them.

"There are companies that make larger chairs and larger beds. So there are loads of products currently on the market but we are always looking for another item that we can come out with or acquire," he adds.

Tactful approach

From the cradle to the grave, companies are looking at obesity not just as a health problem, but also as an opportunity.

"It is an epidemic," says Keith Davis of Goliath Caskets, a company making extra-large coffins.

But he adds: "It is important that we alleviate embarrassment felt by the families of the overweight.

"Hospital and morgue equipment often can't handle bodies weighing over 500lb so the fire department has to be called in to move the body.

"It is particularly important at that time to maintain dignity."

Although there has been a growing demand for his products, he has been unable to expand his business beyond the US.

"We have a problem of timing when shipping the product to another country," he says, "The body is usually buried or transported back to the US before the casket arrives."

Crematoria have also been struggling to deal with spiralling rates of obesity.

In some cases, grieving relatives have to travel hundreds of miles to find crematoria that can accommodate over-sized coffins.

Squeezing profits

Big John and Goliath Caskets may have found ways to profit from widening girths, but for other businesses it creates a problem.

The increasing size and weight of the average theatregoer has had a dramatic impact on how auditoriums are designed.

According to Gene Leitermann, a theatre projects consultant, theatres have actually become twice as big, but people are taking up twice as much space as they were before.

Apart from the width of the seat and the amount of leg room, he has to factor in the aisles and other circulation elements such as egress codes and accessibility.

"There has been a steady increase in legroom and seat width and auditorium size in general over the last 100 years," Mr Leitermann says. "But if you look at the last 20 years, there has been a very steep increase."

Having to provide more space for people means fitting fewer seats into the same area.

"In the last 20 years, we calculate that auditoriums have grown 30% in size to fit the same number of people," he says.

"It is clearly one of the factors why theatres are so expensive to build. They are physically larger, not only the auditorium, but the extra lobby space and the extra toilet room space that audiences want today. That space takes more money to run," he says.

image captionModern lifestyles such as convenient fast food and less exercise have contributed to the rise in obesity

Targeting customers

Kathryn Szrodecki is an activist for the rights of larger people, and she believes there are plenty of unexplored business opportunities.

"Larger people basically don't fit. Anything that you would assume that you would fit in, like a seat in a cinema, or a seat in a different place, an airline or whatever, we don't fit. We don't fit clothing, we don't fit in the shower," she explains.

She maintains that some suitable products exist simply in the luxury end of the market but in general, at the average end of the market, there is not much going on.

Logic would decree that if larger people were willing to pay a premium for well-made products designed for larger people, the manufacturers would accommodate them because there would then be a genuine market opportunity and there would be profit to be made.

However, Ms Szrodecki does not agree.

"We don't spend as much as the average person. It is so demoralising going into the shops and finding so little on offer that actually fits, that it is not fun going shopping. So putting a premium on the garment is not going to encourage us back in there," she says.

But what if there was a shop full of interesting designs for larger people? That might lure larger people into spending a bit more money.

"Such paradise. Such paradise, I wish. I wish," Ms Szrodecki proclaims.

It would make a difference to her usual shopping experiences.

"I go out and think: 'Oh no, do I have to really go to that shop, do I really need a new skirt, do I really have to,'" she says.

"This is why I became a dressmaker because I could make my own clothes and actually avoid this entire scenario of having to traipse around and find something that may fit without having to compromise," she says.

"I want a red skirt, that's what I am looking for. You never get it. You end up with a blue something because it happens to fit, because it happens to go around your hips."

She says that retailers should give larger people products they can relate to.

"It's about giving us ideas and styles that we can work with and not just in the fat people's corner at the back," she says, "Bring us into the mainstream, we are mainstream, we are talking about 47% of the population being over a size 16."

Larger people might shop more if they earned more money.

According to Ms Szrodecki however, it is harder for large people to get promotion, to get to the top of their field, to get into managerial positions.

"We are at the bottom of the heap economically, and you want us to pay more for our clothing?" she asks.

"I want to turn these ideas on their head and talk about what these industries are actually trying to provide. Are they going to cater to the 20% of the market which are going spend, spend, spend, spend, or are they going to address the rest of the market?"

She has a simple message for firms looking to improve their profit margins:

"Take a look at us, do some research, talk to us, see why we are not shopping in your shop."

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