Winter Olympics: Team Canada fans outraged over $68 Lululemon red mittens

Click to play video: 'Update on Canadian athletes at the 2022 Beijing Olympics'
Update on Canadian athletes at the 2022 Beijing Olympics
Drew Lawson from the Canadian Sports Institute Calgary joins Global News Morning Calgary to provide an update on the Canadian athletes competing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. – Feb 8, 2022

Deb Reid, from Toronto, has been collecting Team Canada merchandise from every Winter Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

She has a decade’s worth of knitted red mittens, purchased every year since their debut as part of the Canadian Olympic uniform in 2010.

But this year Reid says she won’t be buying anything, because after the merchandising partnership changed hands from Hudson’s Bay to Lululemon, she considers the prices too steep to justify.

“They were a great, affordable way to show Canadian Olympic pride and some of the money goes to support our national team,” Reid says of her iconic mittens.

Red Mittens
Deb Reid, showing off her Olympics paraphernalia from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“I looked at the Lululemon site and I was pretty surprised to see the prices. I was OK with The Bay’s mittens going up to $20, but $68 for a pair is too much for me.”

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Reid isn’t alone. In recent days, Canadians have been voicing their displeasure online with the prices of Team Canada’s Beijing 2022 merchandise — a first under the charge of Lululemon, after the Vancouver-based athleisure giant signed a deal last year to become the exclusive Olympics outfitter of Team Canada until at least the 2028 Games.

Before its partnership expired in 2020, HBC, the parent company of Hudson’s Bay, was Team Canada’s outfitter for almost two decades, since 2006 in Turin, Italy. Prior to that, Roots provided the gear.

But it was under the helm of Hudson’s Bay that the red, knitted mittens were introduced to the world.

Why The Bay's red mittens were so popular

The year was 2010 and Vancouver was gearing up to host the 21st Winter Olympics, the third in Canada but the first for B.C.

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It was also the year of the mittens.

The red mitts, with a white maple leaf sewn onto the palm and the Olympic rings on the back, were first launched in October 2009 in the lead-up to the Games, but gained widespread attention when they were seen warming the hands of Canadian athletes during the 2010 opening ceremony.

Canadian women's hockey team members Marie-Philip Poulin, left to right, Shannon Szabados and Caroline Ouellette pose as they show off the seventh edition of the Hudson's Bay Olympic red mittens in this undated handout photo.
Canadian women’s hockey team members Marie-Philip Poulin, left to right, Shannon Szabados and Caroline Ouellette pose as they show off the seventh edition of the Hudson’s Bay Olympic red mittens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Hudson's Bay

They quickly became one of the most coveted souvenirs to have in Vancouver. Athletes, fans, residents and visitors started sporting them. There were lines outside stores to buy a pair, outlined in a TIME article from 2010. Even Oprah Winfrey wanted in on the action, buying enough for her entire studio audience during a show.

That year, net profits from the $10 mittens went towards funding Canadian Olympic athletes. More than 3.5 million pairs were sold, according to HBC.

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The third version of the red Olympic mittens, released on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Three dollars from each pair of the $10 mittens go towards supporting Canadian Olympians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, COC
The third version of the red Olympic mittens, released on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Three dollars from each pair of the $10 mittens go towards supporting Canadian Olympians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, COC.

The release of a new mitten design became an annual tradition for Hudson’s Bay, unveiled by athletic stars each year. A portion of the profits — usually around 30 per cent — continued to go towards funding Canadian athletes.

According to HBC, more than $34 million was raised for the Canadian Olympic Foundation since 2010.

Many Canadians, such as Reid, collected them every year. Reid says she spent $20 on them in 2020, when they were at their most expensive.

HBC declined to comment further on this story.

Lululemon's Team Canada gear: from $8 to $448

In 2022, under Lululemon, a pair of red mittens now costs $68. They are no longer chunky and knitted, but are quilted and made from polyester.

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According to its website, the cheapest piece of Lululemon Team Canada merchandise is an $8 scrunchie. A pair of socks will set you back $28. The most expensive is a down jacket that comes in at $448.

Its sole fundraising item is the Future Legacy Bag, priced at $38, from which 10 per cent of sales go towards funding Canadian athletes.

Click to play video: 'Lululemon founder Chip Wilson inducted into ‘Business Laureates of BC Hall of Fame’'
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson inducted into ‘Business Laureates of BC Hall of Fame’

In a statement, a Lululemon spokesperson said: “Our products are developed with cutting-edge fabrics and innovative design techniques that deliver unparalleled feel, fit, and performance.”

“We price our products based on our commitment to the value of innovation, technology, premium materials, functionality, and detail.”

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But many loyal Team Canada fans Global News spoke to said they would struggle to afford anything from the line this year.

“This year I went to Lululemon and saw the stuff in person and I was shocked at the price,” Jillian Ainge, from Winnipeg, says.

“Since I can remember I have been getting something every Olympics. When Roots had the gear I had tons!”

Ainge says that unlike in previous years, when she’d buy multiple items, from backpacks to hoodies, this year she bought an $8 scrunchie and a $38 bag and called it a day.

Higher prices 'worth the quality'

But Brianne Cail, from Toronto, says you cannot compare merchandise from this year with previous years. Cail says she got Team Canada mittens for Christmas each year, but did so for the “fandom” aspect rather than their performance. She also believes they’re catering to a new demographic.

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“With Lululemon, yes the price is higher, but the quality is leaps and bounds ahead,” she says.

“I totally get that it’s a jarring change. HBC was a partner for so long and are a well-known brand. But I think the Lululemon is appealing to a new crowd in a way that is different. I do own a bunch of Lululemon to begin with and the mitts being a higher price didn’t even give me pause as I know they’re worth the quality.”

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Canadian freestyle skier Mikael Kingsbury wins silver medal in Beijing

Ryan Tunall, from Lethbridge, Alta., says he usually buys himself and his children merchandise each Winter Olympics, but won’t be this year due to the price.

“I’m not doubting the quality of the items that Lululemon makes but I feel like the goal of this merchandise should be to show Canadian pride and support for our athletes,” Tunall says.

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“As the old cliche goes, it should be about the logo on the front not the name on the back.”

For Jelena Brcic, living in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics “definitely set me up for a greater love of the event.”

“During 2010 I probably purchased 10-plus pieces of clothing and accessories from the Team Canada gear line. Ever since then I’ve bought something for each of the Olympic Games. When I started having kids, I obviously outfitted them in all the gear whenever the Olympics were on,” she says.

“I looked at the entry point of Lululemon gear and just couldn’t bring myself to spend $68 on a T-shirt.”

'Guess what? Quality costs money'

A Lululemon spokesperson said customer feedback would be taken on board: “We deeply value our guests’ feedback and are taking all learnings from our first Games experience of this partnership to impact how we activate in future Games.”

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David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto and a Canadian national chair in strategic marketing, says Team Canada merchandise has long been “an important sponsorship in the marketing world for Canadians.”

“People are quite taken by the outfits that the athletes wear on television and then they want to buy them themselves,” he says.

Soberman says the higher price point of the Lululemon gear may be an impediment for the company to sell high volumes of stock, but on the other hand, it contributes to an air of “exclusivity” around the product, where people are more likely to be committed to the brand and wear it out and about.

“(Lululemon) commissions its own products and they are slightly higher quality and they do last longer. So guess what? Quality costs money. So you also end up in an economics problem if you try to price lower,” Soberman says.

“To some extent, you are also constrained by what you are. If you’ve gone into a Lululemon store, they have beautiful merchandise, but it does tend to be on the pricey side compared to what you could get in other sporting apparel retailers.”

Click to play video: 'Beijing Olympics 2022 kicks off with opening ceremony'
Beijing Olympics 2022 kicks off with opening ceremony

In relation to online complaints that brand awareness was lacking for Team Canada at Beijing 2022 due to the higher costs of merchandising, Soberman says cost increases and purchasing volumes would not be responsible for that — that’s where promotion, advertising and sponsorships come in.

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“So if there is some perception that brand awareness is somewhat lower for the Olympic merchandise line than it was in previous years, we need not look any further than the 12-hour time gap between when most of the events are occurring and when most Canadians are awake.”

Besides, Canadian fans are still paying less for Olympics gear than next door in the U.S. With Ralph Lauren designing the merchandise, a beanie will set you back $195, a waist bag costs $145 and a pair of gloves up to $345.

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