Over the holidays, we were visiting friends in Seattle and stopped at the REI store. Hubs had an upcoming trip and needed to pick up a few items. From the outside, the store looked awesome and I was looking forward to exploring it because it was so big. Our friend told us that it was a flagship store, so I knew there would be full of good stuff and places to explore. What I didn’t know, was that I would have a life-changing experience.
How a Plus Size Person Typically Shops at Outdoor Stores
Typically, I am not able to find plus size clothing in-store at any outdoor retailer. I buy 99% of my clothes online and end up returning half of them because many outdoor companies have yet to perfect sizing/fit for extended size people. As you can imagine, my shopping experience is very different from those who fall under standard sizes.
For example, I first stop by the clearance section to see if another plus size person had purchased something online and returned it to their local store instead of mailing it back. (I’ve found great, but VERY limited things using this process. Hence the remaining 1% I mentioned above.) Then, I check out the hats, shoes, and camping equipment. Eventually, I will find my way to Hubs and help him make a final selection from the variety of comparable items offered to him within the store. Before we head to the checkout counter, Hubs always asks me if I found anything I wanted. To which I always respond with an off the cuff remark about not really needing more shoes or hats. He gives me a look of commiseration before we pay and head home.
That’s it. I don’t even bother sorting through the racks of women’s clothing because I know there aren’t any options available in-store for me. It’s frustrating.
The Plus Size Gear Gap
If you are a standard-size person, you likely didn’t know that the majority of outdoor retailers don’t carry plus size options in-store. In fact, many brands that make plus size clothes and have their own stores don’t even carry plus size options. IF they do have plus sizes in their stores, it is usually just a single item.
For example, when we lived near DC, our local Columbia Outlet usually either had a fleece jacket in stock. It was always just a 1x, but on a rare occasion, they would have a 2x or a 3x. Obviously, I didn’t need to buy the same item over and over, so they lost a lot of sales as we frequented the store for Hubs. The same thing goes for my local REI. The only plus-size items I’ve ever found there have been on the clearance racks.
It’s so frustrating. In fact, I’ve written an entire post about how frustrating it can be for us plus size folks. You can also learn more by listening to my chat with Amanda on her Sunshine Chaser’s Podcast.
By the Numbers
Did you know that the average American woman is considered plus size? Yet, even at national retailers like REI, only 3 percent of their sales are in the extended size categories. With this low percentage of sales, it is hard for shoppers to understand why there aren’t more extended sizes in stores. We would buy more items if you had them available, right? Well, from the business perspective, history has shown that it isn’t all that profitable to offer extended sizes in store.
A Time for Change
Even though it hasn’t been as profitable, some outdoor industry folks decided it was time for a change. “Our mission [at REI] is to get everyone outside, regardless of your size. Since that is our mission, we should stand behind that in our assortment,” said Trina Fornerette-Ballard, senior category merchandising manager at REI.
REI has been leading the way when it started it’s women-focused Force of Nature campaign in 2017. The campaign was designed to disrupt the status quo. As the campaign website states, it “claims the outdoors as a place to opt out of cultural pressures to conform—the “supposed-to’s” and “shoulds” that underpin outdated stereotypes—especially for women. To create real change right now we are putting women—of all ages, races, sizes, gender expressions—front and center in all we do.”
In addition, REI has been working on extending their in-house brands and with their retail partners to offer more plus sizes in-store and online. At this time, there are 17 REI locations that carry plus size options in-store. What I didn’t know until recently, was that the REI store in Seattle was one of them.
A Life-Changing Moment in an REI Fitting Room
So, with this knowledge, you might not be too surprised that I cried literal tears of joy when I walked into the Seattle REI and found a bunch of plus size clothes. Honestly, I didn’t even know they did until I made my way to the clearance section and noticed an ENTIRE rack of plus size clothes. The rack even contained multiple sizes of each item. You honestly could have knocked me over with a feather!
I immediately grabbed a couple pairs of pants (multiple sizes in each) and a couple shirts. On my way to the fitting room, I noticed another area of pants that looked to have larger sizes. I stopped to look more closely and found several pairs with little wooden clothespins on the hanger neck. These too were plus size!
I grabbed at least two sizes on most of the hiking pants as I switch between a 2x and 3x depending on the cut. The busy fitting room attendant didn’t even blink an eye at my armful of loot or the insane gleeful smile on my face. She just walked me to a door and asked if I had seen the prAna ones similar to the pair that was on top of my pile. When I said no, she went and got them for me.
Y’all, I ended up taking SIX styles of plus size hiking pants into that dressing room. I could have taken more, but these were just my favorite styles. I have NEVER had an opportunity to be selective when it comes to plus size hiking pants or other outdoor gear. As I tried them on, I got so emotional at finally having been given the same opportunity as my standard-size counterparts to purchase what makes me look and feel confident.
I honestly could have purchased all of the pants, but ended up selecting the recommended prAna pair and a nice prAna shirt. I’d never purchased prAna before because their price range is a little out of what I like to spend. However, seeing the quality and experiencing the fit in-person made the extra cost worth it.
Hope for the Future
This experience gave me so much hope for the future of a more inclusive outdoor industry. I hope that all people who fall under the “extended sizes” categories can have a similar experience in the near future. We need to bring these offering to all stores, not just a handful.
Retailers, start thinking outside the standard-size box if you have not already. Talk to your consumers, run surveys, conduct research, find plus size product ambassadors, etc. Don’t just add a few inches on your standard-size products and call it plus size. Draft new patterns that align with our plus size bodies. We will spend more money on something that fits well, performs well, and looks great
Now, if we can just push some more boundaries in the outdoor marketing world….