Fresh off a successful campaign to change the way retailers approach Black Friday, REI is unleashing Force of Nature, a multi-pronged effort to change the industry's approach to women as employees and customers.
The outdoor co-op is hoping to advance gender equity in this category. REI was co-founded by a woman -- Mary Anderson, now 107 -- and today 45% of all REI employees and nearly half of corporate officers are women.
"Women's leadership for us has been a really big deal at REI for a long time," said Laura Swapp, director of public affairs and next-gen marketing. "Our challenge was how can bring this to the rest of our 16 million members."
Nearly half of REI's members and 48% of its customers are women (co-op members pay a single fee of $20 to unlock benefits and discounts, and receive dividends).
A comprehensive effort to change the male-dominated imagery of people in the outdoors by featuring women in advertising and marketing materials, both in stores and out
A $1 million commitment to support nonprofits that create opportunities for women in the outdoors;
A stepped-up effort to develop and offer high-quality technical gear and apparel for women; and Introduce more than 1,000 events designed for women, beginning May 6.
The program is based on internal research conducted by REI.
Women surveyed overwhelmingly (85%) believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness and overall well-being, and 70% reported that being outdoors is liberating.
But there are big obstacles. Some 63% said they could not think of an outdoor female role model and six in 10 women believe that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s.
Many are looking for partners to participate in activities and gear developed specifically for women, two areas addressed in the Force of Nature campaign.
REI will host more than 1,000 events and classes as opportunities for women to learn new activities or participate with others. Many will take place weekly as part of "Force Wednesdays" in some markets. There will also be retreats and excursions in the U.S. and abroad.
The company is also working with vendors to develop gear that fits the female form, something that has long been given short shrift by suppliers. There's more to creating technical gear for women than shrinking a size or making it pink including different weight distribution, grips and functionality important in activities like mountain climbing where the gear can literally save or cost a life.
REI has rooted Force of Nature in research, but it really began internally.
"We felt like we had to get our own house in order, to understand the impact of women's leadership internally," Swapp said in an interview.
Part of that includes the notion of corporate leaders as allies and the company's plan to close on Black Friday in 2015 and pay employees anyway. The reaction to has informed this effort.
"When they made this announcement to a group of store managers at a leadership conference, it was memorable," said Jacqueline Harp, a store manager at REI in San Antonio, Texas. "This is what you do in retail, you work on Black Friday. That we were invited to spend time with people who mean the most to us during the holiday season."
Customers were quick to get on board, said Harp. "People came in and said 'you took a stand, we stand with you.' It did a lot to generate this sense of community that was really core to what it means to be a co-op."
#OptOutside contributed to more than just good will among co-op members. It helped fuel a 9.3% revenue increase in the fiscal year ended in 2016 and the addition of 1 million new co-op members. REI repeated #OptOutside in 2016, to similar effect.
Force of Nature promises to also boost sales and membership. Customers of both genders who participate in outdoor programs or classes spend 2.5 times more than the average customer and those that go on REI Adventures spend 30% more than average.
Is REI worried about a backlash?
"We think about it, but we're not worried about it," said Swapp. "This effort is about leveling the playing field, not pushing men away. We see men as our partners and allies who are participating in the effort."
"For us, this is really personal, this is us," said Swapp. "We are literally surrounded by these women, these forces of nature. They are everywhere and we have an opportunity to share that power. This feels deep and personal in the same way #OptOutside did."
"This is built into the core of who we are," said Harp. "It's time and it's overdue and we're the organization to do it."
The Forces of Nature campaign launches today and will be visible in in-store signage and marketing materials through 2017.