Closing the Women’s Gear Gap: Less Labels, More Sizes

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Over the years, women’s gear has gotten better, but there are still big gaps between the quality and variety of gear that is designed for men and women. In April, we launched a public effort called Force of Nature to level the playing field for women in the outdoors.  As we fight to change the perceptions of outdoor women of any age, race, size or gender expression, we are also fighting to close the fit gap.

We talked with the merchandising team, led by senior vice president Susan Viscon, to talk the nitty gritty. Here is what REI is doing to provide world-class gear that actually fits women of any size.

Why does REI think extended sizing is important?

We believe that a life outdoors is a life well lived, and we believe that everyone should get outside with gear that fits. Active bodies come in every shape and size. We know that we have not provided all women with the gear they need to get outdoors, and we are actively working to change that.

Industry statistics suggest that today 40% of American women are petite, 10% are tall and 67% wear a size 14 and above. If we only stock traditional sizes, we’re leaving the majority of American women out. We know that many of our customers can’t find their size at REI—because we might not carry it or we are out of stock. We are working to change that problem, so there isn’t another barrier keeping our members from getting outside.

What has REI been doing to make progress?

In the early 2000s, we began asking our partner brands to make gear and clothing designed for women. We drove change in the industry by boldly investing in women-specific gear. To remain a leader in the outdoor industry, we have a responsibility to empower women of all sizes to engage in the outdoors. That’s what we’re working on now.

In 2015, we identified a gap in climbing shoes and harnesses for women, so we doubled our assortment. We found a gap in wide-width hiking footwear for women, so we nearly tripled our style and color options over the past two years. In 2016, we found a gap in women’s outerwear and extended sizes, so we doubled our offerings. We are committed to outfitting women well.

Over the past year, we have concentrated on women’s fit and color with national brands and our own REI Co-op products. In our pack line, we have walked away from a “shrink it and pink it” philosophy to a fit built specifically for women in unexpected color schemes. We have also doubled extended sizing online with clothing and gear from Columbia, Kuhl, lucy, Shebeest, Terry, tasc Performance and Nike.

We have a big influence with our vendors. The more that vendors understand this is a long-term stance we’re taking, the more they can take the risk with us. We have to do better by our women customers. Not only is it the right thing, but if we don’t start doing what’s right, we are going to lose our customers.

What does “less labels, more sizes” mean?

You aren’t a petite climber, you’re a badass climber. You aren’t a plus-size mountain biker, you’re out there shredding. We want to take the labels out of the equation and focus on gearing you up to get outside. We need sizing for all, whether the industry defines you as regular, petite, tall or plus. We are expanding options for women size 14 or above in 2017. And we are working to offer more sizing options for smaller and taller women in 2018. We will continue to expand in all areas moving forward.

What designates gear “designed for women”?

When we designate gear for women, it means it fits properly and it has an attractive color scheme. What we do not mean is that we “shrink and pink” men’s gear or that we have a gender-specific product in every category—we will only carry women-specific gear when it makes a difference.

We hear you, and we agree: Women deserve gear colors beyond pinks and purples. Women deserve teals, oranges, neutrals and neon colors, to name a few. Women deserve colors that fit in with the activity they’re doing. And, as we become more gender neutral as a culture, there should be unisex colors in the mix.

What can we expect to see in-store and online?

Right now we currently offer the following:

  • Cycle Clothing: 1X – 3X from Shebeest and Terry online
  • Outerwear: 1X – 3X from Columbia online
  • Outdoor Cross Training: 1X – 3X from lucy in 11 stores and online; 1X – 3X from Nike and tasc Performance online
  • Apparel: 1X – 3X from Columbia and Kuhl in 11 stores and online

In 2018, you can expect more extended-sizing options for plus, petite and tall women. We will be adding plus-size options from prAna and REI Co-op plus additional styles from Kuhl and Nike in 11 stores, one in each of our major markets (Seattle, Portland, Bloomington, Anchorage, Tustin, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Atlanta, Boulder, Washington D.C., Sumner, Bedford and Goodyear), so every market has one store that will have inventory on the floor. Shopping online still will offer the largest assortment of extended sizes. All clothing and gear can be bought online and returned to your distribution center or local store.

Why can’t we do more now?

As a retailer, we rely on other companies to create gear that works. This is a problem that we can’t fix overnight. It’s an ongoing conversation. We know that we cannot move fast enough for our women customers, but we are committed to doing the right thing.

As we work with our partners to create more sizing options, we’re also speaking with our members to ensure we are giving them what they want and need.

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