by Erin Kirkland
Since the 1930’s, outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) has prided itself on selling practical, durable gear to generations of enthusiastic hikers, climbers, paddlers, and cyclists. The member-based co-op that first opened its doors on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in 1938 now serves 5.5 million active members with sales of $2.2 billion (2014 report), and has morphed from ice axes and frame packs to outfitting the entire family head to toe, and then some.
Full disclosure: I am a child of REI. My father, a forester, relied upon the store for everything from wool socks to clunky camp stoves, and took my brother, sister, and me there for field trips in the dark, creaky, creosote-scented building so often it felt like a second home. Dad’s REI membership number is either three or four digits — I can’t tell because it’s so old and worn out the purple typewritten numbers have faded into the white background of his card. I still have my childhood JanSport frame pack, and my son now sleeps in my first self-earned REI purchase, a Half-Dome tent that reliably swaddled me night after night around the Pacific Northwest. As babies, my boys slept in cozy buntings purchased at REI, and miles were walked or jogged behind Kelty strollers.
So when Twitter became abuzz during the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market?with rumors mentioning discontinuation of infant and toddler gear at REI, naturally I was concerned. I may have even said “What the hell?” once or twice.
I mean, REI’s annual reports are consistent about getting people outside and in nature, stating in the 2015 edition that “We believe everyone should have access to the outdoors,”?and as a lifelong participant in this endeavor, I believe them. That said, there is no denying the company has added to certain departments while shrinking others; women’s clothing with an emphasis on fashion rather than function comes to mind, but hey, I read the facts and figures about “my” investment; I paid attention in high school economics class, and understand (mostly) the basics of supply and demand.
In the case of infant and toddler apparel, according to REI, demand is most definitely a factor for considering a new sales platform. Below is the official statement from an REI company spokesperson:
“To best meet the needs of our members, REI’s merchants track the sales of our products closely and base their buys, and in-store displays, on member demand. To make additional floor space in our stores, we are moving infant and toddler styles online starting this fall (2016). Performance-wear starting with youth styles (sizes 6-12) will continue to be available in both our stores and online.”
A few points of clarification: REI will still carry infant and toddler gear and apparel. Customers must, however, shop online for these products beginning fall 2016 (it was not made clear to me in my conversations with REI about an exact date, however). Gear for big kids will be available both in store and online.
What exactly does this mean for you? It may depend where you live and how you shop. Here in Alaska, with two REI stores 350 miles apart, in a frigid environment far from the Continental United States, stock can be limited and we rely heavily upon online orders. It sure is nice to eyeball an article of clothing or piece of gear before we buy though, make no mistake, and having a store like REI in my town has helped tremendously as our children matured from babies to tweens and beyond.
But here’s the potential rub. What if a family who has trusted REI for years with their own gear now has a baby or toddler and is unsure about where to find wool socks today because said toddler stuffed the last pair in the toilet; or mom and dad are visiting grandma’s house for Christmas and realize they left the snowsuit at home? Children are never predictable, so it sure is (was) nice to have an outdoor resource to rely upon in times of great need.
Parents want access to the outdoors for their littlest family members. This movement by REI, then, could be a wake-up call to others in the industry for storefront product. After all, children who grow up in nature today are more likely to become adult stewards of nature tomorrow, so how about it? More options mean more opportunities, and in that, we as an outdoor-related industry team can’t go wrong.
Erin Kirkland is managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine and publisher of AKontheGO.com, an Alaska-based family travel and outdoor recreation website. She lives in Anchorage.?