As an employee of Athleta I am often asked, “What is the difference between Lululemon and Athleta?" On the surface level they are the same: Both are purveyors of high-end workout and lifestyle apparel started in 1998 and 2009, respectively, but beyond selling the same type of clothing they have key differences. Since Lululemon carries men’s clothes while Athleta does not, I am focusing only on the women’s side of Lululemon’s product in order to compare the two companies. When they are compared Athleta is the better of the two companies. This claim seems biased since I work at Athleta, but I also own Lululemon apparel from my pre-Athleta days and after doing some investigation about the following differences I have confirmed my opinion.
Although yoga pants are not the only product at either store, a Bussiness Insider article chose the two base yoga pants from each company to compare general prices on clothing. Lululemon’s base yoga pant, the Groove Pant (left), is $98, while Athleta’s Revelation Pant (right) is $79. With 81 percent nylon and 19 percent lycra in the Groove Pant and 88 percent nylon and 12 percent lycra in the Revelation, the two pants are essentially the same. Unless the silver emblem that looks like an Omega is worth $19 to you, Lululemon’s pants are not worth the price increase. Instead, those $19 can be used to buy two burrito bowls at Chipotle or a drop-in fee to a yoga class where the pants can be worn.
Because Gap Inc. owns Athleta, Banana Republic, and Old Navy, the company is able to provide more rewards to customers who hold credit or gift cards from those stores. Not only can those cards be used at Athleta, but also purchases with a Gap Inc. store brand credit card at the stores gather points, which generate monetary rewards. Customers bring in rewards of different values, which are deducted from the total purchase. Lululemon is its own entity and therefore cannot offer any benefits of that kind.
Athleta has two “Semi-Annual Sale” events in which the entire store is up to 60 percent off. There is also a sale section in the fitting room area that has markdowns year round. Lululemon has one or two racks devoted to markdowns. According to Lululemon’s website, “All sale items, water bottles, headwear, and underwear are final sale.” At Athleta, there is no final sale on any products, thus taking the risk out of the shopping experience because items can always be returned.
Lululemon’s fitness instructor discount, which is a part of their “Research and Development Program,” is 15 percent, while Athleta gives a 30 percent discount to registered fitness instructors. Although Lululemon’s discount covers all merchandise, and the discount at Athleta only works for full-priced items, Athleta has more sale items that are often more than 30 percent off, so the instructor is getting an even better deal. Athleta’s stores also have kiosks with computers linked to Athleta.com in which store associates can help instructors order online while still getting the discount. Lululemon’s instructors discount only works on in-store products because the devices used to order online are not equipped to give the discount.
Lululemon carries sizes 2-12 and Athleta carries 00-16 (with extended sizes online). The reality is that not only people who wear sizes 2-12 are looking for workout clothes, and therefore Lululemon is losing an important group of potential clientele. Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, said about his brand’s apparel: “Some women’s bodies just don’t actually work for it.” According to a Time article, he resisted selling plus sizes because he said the 30 percent increase in fabric for the items would make the price increase, but he doesn’t want to do that because "plus-size people are 'sensitive'." Athleta’s wider range of sizes and styles cater to more than a few body types.
Lululemon’s return policy is 14 days with all tags attached. Athleta also offers the “Give-it-a-Work-Out Guarantee” in which the customer can take the tags off the item and work out or wear the item as much as they want with the option to return it—at any time—if she is not completely satisfied with the product’s performance. Athleta’s return policy is imperative for athletic apparel in particular because running shorts that are comfortable in the fitting room might ride up or chafe on a run. Lululemon requires a proof of purchase for the returns, but Athleta does not require a receipt. The return can be looked up through the card used for payment or by refunding the customer with the current selling price for the item.
These are very basic differences between the companies, but they are the main differences between the business models and strategies of the two stores. After working at Athleta for two summers and on breaks during the year, I can answer a customer’s question about the differences confidently, and although I have never worked at Lululemon, I have not found any notable superior aspects from statements by Lululemon employees or by chatting live with the “Educators” on their website. In the end, the customer still has a choice, but being informed helps her to make the best decision.