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Q&A: REI's Susan Viscon

REI head of merchandising and private brands sees ‘great retailers’ providing more than just price and products.

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Earlier this year, REI launched its new in-house brand Evrgrn — a collection of lifestyle/urban outdoor products in the realm of what showgoers see at Outdoor Retailer’s Venture Out section. Leading the charge as well as REI’s merchandising efforts, is Susan Viscon, an 18-year veteran with the nation’s largest outdoor retailer and a recently-elected board member to the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition. We get her take on today’s world of merchandising and how more women can get involved in the industry.


Nearly a quarter of REI’s business is done online these days. How has that affected strategies for merchandising?
REI is currently evolving our digital presentation from a transactional one to a richer experience with greater content and service. Great retailers realize the way to gain and retain loyal and engaged customers involves providing more than just price and product specs on their websites. People want to have affinity with brands. Great retailers give the customer a platform and community to engage in the outdoors and with others who care about the same things.

How have consumer-shopping habits changed the way REI handles its inventory?
We believe our core categories of camp, hike, climb, as well as technical footwear and outerwear, warrant an expanded online assortment — offering more style options like color and size. This past February we implemented ‘store inventory fulfillment.’ This allows us to represent the entire available product within our complete chain on the website. We have realized incredible growth by selling that clearance, size-13 hiking boot that is in the backroom of a store, as well as finding the true online demand for products.

Launching the Evrgrn brand earlier this year, what made you decide on a new name versus the existing REI brand line of products?
Over the past year, we have been refining brand direction and identity for each of our private brands. For our REI brand, we want to ensure product stays focused on performance, which is at the core of REI the retailer. With this goal, we have begun editing categories and elevating performance features for REI brand. This will become a stronger statement as we release our Spring 2016 REI brand product line. When we created the Evrgrn brand, we wanted to allow it to have its own perspective about the outdoors. This collection of products is less about performance in extreme conditions and more about getting outdoors in a social context and closer to home. The products still perform, but aligned to the needs of a different consumer.

What areas need the most attention for the industry to attract and retain more female customers, employees and leaders?
I am part of a task force at REI on an initiative around women in leadership. Early on in our discussions, we identified that we needed a holistic approach to the work rather than just a program. That includes:

>> Our brand – ensuring that our storytelling, creative efforts and communications are inclusive.
>> Our experience – offering expertise, engaging product displays and outdoor programs for women.
>>Our employees – reflecting women in our activities through our inspired guides and leaders.
>>Our product – providing a strong representation of women-specific product and influencing the industry to ensure innovation by having gender diversity in all aspects of their businesses.

OIWC is taking a similar holistic approach, and for me, it’s an exciting endeavor of which to be a part as a new board member.

Has REI seen a significant gender shift in its sales over the past decade? 
REI was an early champion of women-specific products. We would strategize with key vendors and commit to buy these products if they would produce them. We also made bold moves to give equal floor space to our women’s categories even though the sales were much smaller. The response was overwhelming. The women-specific products were often the top selling styles in departments, and over four years, we saw our men’s and women’s business come on par with each other. We also realized a large uptick in women as a percentage of our total membership. Now as I look at the offerings, I’m amazed to think that just a decade ago we were scrambling for products. It is so exciting to see the shift the industry has made and what a difference it has had on our collective business.

–David Clucas