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Why REI Co-op Is Banking on Redefined Partnerships and Private Brands for Long-Term Success

The past couple of years have changed the way that consumers participate in the outdoors. As a result, REI Co-op is shifting its approach to product, as evident in its recent brand partnerships and the strategy for its own private label.

Throughout 2021, REI’s partnerships have yielded some unexpected drops aimed at today’s more-expansive idea of outdoor recreation. For instance, in June, the co-op collaborated with furniture and home decor company West Elm on a lifestyle collection meant to take picnicking to the next level. And in May, it teamed up with OXO to launch outdoor cooking tools sold exclusively at REI Co-op.

“[Those were inspired by] that idea of a day in the park or in your backyard. We want to encourage that version of the outdoors just as much as anything else, and those brands are probably more familiar to people who just recreate or participate differently,” REI VP of product Chris Speyer told FN.

Arguably the most intriguing partnership for REI last year, according to Speyer, was the release of the bold and colorful Cotopaxi x Hoka One One collab, for which it was the exclusive retail partner. “They are two brands we have huge alignment with in terms of values, and we had a lot of fun telling the story of a cool collaboration that we could put in front of the customer,” Speyer said.

Wendy Yang, president of the performance and lifestyle group at Hoka parent Deckers Brands agreed that all the project players shared a similar customer profile. “Also, we appreciated the opportunity to stretch beyond our original core strength — run specialty — and this collab had all the right ingredients to make it the perfect fit for both REI and Hoka,” she said.

Cotopaxi Hoka One One Torrent 2
Cotopaxi x Hoka One One Torrent 2.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Hoka One One

ITS DRIVING FORCE

As REI grows and evolves, Speyer said the company’s values remain a priority — and have informed some of its newest product initiatives.

“Why you’re in business, the customers you target with your products, your sustainability initiatives, how you’re thinking about racial equity, diversity and inclusion — those are all pieces that are critical to us,” he explained.

In order to become more inclusive, REI announced in June 2021 that it will expand its apparel sizing up to size 20, by early 2022. Participating brands include Athleta, Nani Swimwear, Pearl Izumi and others.

That initiative was born from REI’s gender equity effort, Force of Nature, which launched in March 2017. It yielded feedback from women who said they want to participate in the outdoors but lack access to expanded sizing in products to get outside.

STRONG PROSPECTS

For 2022, Speyer said REI’s partnerships will yield more collaborative apparel and outdoor hard goods — specifically in the cooking space — and broader lifestyle products.

He also expects big things from two brands in particular: “The Athleta partnership from last year, being the exclusive wholesale partner — we’re going to continue to expand what that looks like to the customer. And our Vuori partnership will continue to grow. We’re really fortunate to have some talented merchants who spotted that early and we’ve been able to be a good partner there.”

What’s more, Speyer said he’s particularly excited about discovering new brands via Greenlight, a vendor portal REI soft launched in October 2021 aimed at offering smaller labels direct access to the retail giant.

“I’m stoked about those incubations that we can introduce and grow with the customer. Janji, for example, is a small run brand we are bullish on right now — sustainable in terms of how they make their products and interesting in terms of prints they use. It’s cool stuff that we will hope to grow over the next couple of years,” he said.

ALL ITS OWN

REI Co-op Flash hiking boot
The REI Co-op Flash hiking boot.
CREDIT: Courtesy of REI Co-op

Beyond collaborations and brand partnerships, REI’s private label — referred to as Co-op Brands — is another critical component to its long-term success. “REI, the brand, means something. When you put it on product, it needs to be the physical manifestation of 83 years of history,” Speyer said.

However, the executive added that Co-op Brands is not given greater weight than the other lines it stocks. “Our goal with our own private brand is for it to be an important part of our ecosystem but not the dominant part of our ecosystem in terms of offerings to the customer,” Speyer said.

Already robust, Co-op Brands introduced an expanded offering in spring ’21, when footwear bearing the REI logo made its debut. The first two styles were the fast and lightweight Flash boot and the Traverse backpacking boot, retailing or $130 and $150, respectively.

Speyer said the footwear launch got a positive reaction overall, but faced some hurdles. “We had a manufacturing challenge with our Traverse boot. It created a fit issue for some folks. Because of how important hike is to us, we pulled the Traverse from the floor [in July].”

However, REI did confirm that new lighter weight and versatile hike options will be coming back once REI has rectified the issues. “If it’s going to say REI on it, we are going to be perfect versus almost right,” he said.

Looking ahead, Speyer teased that new product is coming this year, specifically in the lifestyle category, and said REI will expand its footwear range significantly in 2023.

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