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The outdoor industry has, to date, done a terrible job of catering to bigger bodies. It’s extremely disappointing when 68% of American women wear sizes 14+ but less than 20% of outdoor apparel is made in plus sizes. 

Last week, I wrote about three reasons why people in bigger bodies tend to avoid shopping in retail stores. Over the next two weeks, I’d like to write about the lack of sufficient supply of plus size outdoor apparel in stores, and what’s being done to correct this deficiency.

This week, we’re going to kick it off by simply acknowledging that the state of outdoor apparel for bigger bodies is stuck in the gnarliest of cycles. 

There are three main players:

  1. Customers, who want to purchase products.
  2. Brands, who want to make products.
  3. Retailers, who sit in the middle, buying products from brands and reselling them to customers.

Customers in bigger bodies are frustrated AF

Those of us who live in bigger bodies and are active in the outdoors already inherently know that there is sufficient demand for outdoor apparel that fits bigger bodies. We are tired of not being able to walk into our local retail store and buy something that fits, for the activities we want to engage in soon. We are tired of having to plan ahead, ordering clothes online to find out if they actually fit, and then returning or exchanging them when they don’t. 

Not having clothes that make us feel safe and comfortable in the outdoors is a physical barrier to entry. So when brands and retailers DO have products that have promise, we get excited… and then we get extra disappointed when they’re not quite right. (But brands and retailers that do it properly? Ooh, we are stans for LIFE!)

Brands want to expand their customer base, but their budgets are limited

Making outdoor apparel is a lot more expensive than folks will ever understand. From building prototypes to purchasing fabric and trims, from finding a factory to finding an excellent third-party logistics provider, there are so many costs involved. Established brands already have these pieces figured out, but making excellent products for a new customer base still costs more time and money than anyone ever expects.

Brands who make the effort to step into new markets often have to cut corners in order to prove that they have what it takes to attract customers. This means they’ll use lower-quality materials, limit the sizes/colors, or sacrifice some of their current product quantities in order to make new products within the budget they have available. Unfortunately, these cut corners leave customers wanting, especially if the launch of the new line doesn’t meet customers’ expectations.

Retailers want to serve their communities but still have to make a profit

Folks who purchase products from various brands on behalf of retailers are called Buyers. They are in charge of making purchase orders and tracking how well their items sell through to their customers. In many ways, purchase orders are bets - sometimes they’re low risk (Patagonia will generally sell through) and sometimes they’re high risk (new brands, in particular, might not sell through as quickly or as well). When the bet pays off, Buyers get rewarded. Cautious Buyers focus on purchasing products that they know will sell, and are understandably wary about products that might sit on shelves and not perform very well.

There’s limited space in physical stores to showcase products - so anything that doesn’t sell through has to go on clearance, cutting into the store’s profits and making buyers wary about purchasing more products from the brands behind those items. It’s not as big of a deal for bigger brands, but small brands who only have a few products available get really hurt by this situation.

How the cycle is supposed to work

Customers walk into retail stores, looking for products that serve them. When they don’t find anything, they complain to the store, who goes out in search of brands that will meet their customers’ needs. Brands that serve those customers sell their products to the retailer, who then sells the products to the customer. Now the customer is happy and they come back to the retailer and/or become a fan of the brand.

How the cycle got gnarly

As before, customers in bigger bodies asked for outdoor apparel in bigger sizes. Retailers demanded more sizes from their tried-and-true brand partners. A few brands tried to expand their sizing some time ago, but they did it poorly - bad fit, insufficient sizing, limited colors and styles. Customers weren’t satisfied, so the products didn’t sell through. The result was a combination of brands putting their bigger sizes on the back burner and Buyers not ordering any more bigger sizes for their stores. Customers continue to ask for more options, so new, smaller companies spin up - but getting into stores is difficult (no brand recognition or track record) and reaching audiences is hard. The industry seems to be at a standstill, and everyone struggles.

How do we fix it?

Next week, I’m going to talk about some hard truths behind the cycle between brands, retailers, and customers. But I’m curious: what do YOU think needs to change? Send us an email or holler at us on social media!