Updated 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Plus-size, Left handed and gluten-free in Latin America

It’s not as easy as you might think to buy jeans in Argentina. Just ask Sharon Haywood, a Canadian expat in Buenos Aires who found out the hard way. Although Haywood is average in height and weight — a North American size 10 — no clothing stores in Argentina stock garments that fit her. It’s not that Argentine women are particularly small; in fact, 1 in 3 adults in the country is obese. “Some stores carry just one size that is supposed to fit all,” Haywood says. “It doesn’t.” As a result, many Argentines are forced to cross the border into Chile to find appropriate clothing.

It’s not just Haywood who’s having wardrobe problems. Surveys conducted by the campaign group she leads, AnyBody Argentina, show that 65 to 70 percent of Argentines, primarily women, are sized out of the fashion market. Indeed, retailers across Latin America have long failed to cater adequately to individual needs. One-size-fits-all isn’t just on the label of Levi’s sold in Argentina; it has traditionally described the region’s consumer markets, despite their cultural and economic importance, according to Daniel Fridman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the sociology of Latin American consumerism. But in recent years, that trend has started to change, with an increase in niche markets that cater to non-average consumers, from transportation companies making allowances for disabled passengers to a proliferation of gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan food products and even to left-handed stationery stores.

Despite stagnant economies across the region in recent years, Latin American sales of “free-from” food products for customers with specific intolerances rose 78 percent from 2010 to 2015, even though the rates of dietary conditions like diabetes and gluten intolerance remain stable, according to stats from market research firm Euromonitor. Mexico, Chile and Brazil are leading the specialty-foods charge, with rates far above the regional average. In Brazil, the number of products registered as gluten-free has risen from 167 to more than 700 since 2010. “In the last five years, I have seen an increasing fragmentation of consumer markets here,” says Tomás Ariztía, an associate professor in consumer culture at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile. The trend is especially clear in the food market: “Organic food, it’s just taking over,” Ariztía says, noting that most restaurants are offering vegetarian or vegan dishes, something that rarely used to happen in the meat-obsessed Southern Cone.

The rise of increasingly specialized markets can be seen in the context of the continued internationalization of the region’s economies. Consumption trends are “so intertwined with politics” in Latin America, explains Fridman, citing the region’s contested economic history between open and closed trade policies. There are likely both demand- and supply-side pressures behind the contemporary trends, theorizes Joel Stillerman, a sociology professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. With an expanding middle class and increasing access to global media, consumers are demanding products that meet their needs; meanwhile, as international chains like Wal-Mart and Carrefour continue to grow in the region, stores now offer a range of products that European and American consumers have long enjoyed. Indeed, according to research from management consultancy firm EIU Canback, consumer markets tend to follow a backward J-shaped curve: As consumer markets become more developed, the uptick at the end describes a movement away from mass-produced, homogeneous product preferences.

The trend toward personalized consumption is by no means limited to Latin America. Catering to “extraordinary” customers is one of 10 major global trends in consumption identified in a recent Euromonitor report. Online commerce facilitates much of this market fragmentation, the report’s author, Daphne Kasriel-Alexander, tells OZY, plus “online retail has influenced what brick-and-mortar retailers have to do.” With consumers now able to communicate directly with brands via social media, “the whole context of consumer muscle has changed,” says Kasriel-Alexander, with consumers around the world demanding that their voices be heard — and their needs addressed.

To be sure, a rebound still is a long way off in Latin America, which suffered a recession throughout 2016 as political crises shook several major economies. Regulation has driven much of the growth in niche products as culture and market forces have long failed to promote change. Brazil’s boom in gluten-free food has been driven by new laws that force companies to expand their product range, while new laws in many Argentine provinces are forcing fashion companies to stock a broader range of sizes. The country still lacks a national law, though, and corruption hinders enforcement in jurisdictions that have taken action. “When it comes to the plus[-size] market, it’s still really, really small here,” says AnyBody Argentina’s Haywood. Meanwhile, what progress has been made is not open to all: In this part of the world, as Fridman points out, “class identity is still strongly connected with access to consumption.”

So the next time you travel to Buenos Aires or Santiago, don’t be afraid to dust off your Spanish with the phrase “soy vegetariano.” Just be sure to pack your own well-fitting jeans along with the phrase book.