Outdoor retailer REI made big news Monday when its corporate leadership announced that it would not open its stores on Black Friday.
This is a serious commitment for any retail company, as Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — is usually the biggest in-store shopping day of the year, and kicks off the industry’s most crucial period. Christmas is our excuse to buy a lot of stuff, after all, and there are a lot of consumers who know outdoorsy types who’d love a jacket, a tent, a pair of skis or some sort of gadget to go play outside.
The move is much more than a spontaneous measure of goodwill. It has plenty of layers. So here’s some snapshot thoughts of what REI’s Black Friday announcement means:
This was a seriously thought-out plan. The decision was packaged well, complete with its own social media hashtag, #OptOutside, and a web page that asks visitors to participate in their own version of Black Friday. It’s interactive, slick, and very visual. And its framework fits nicely with a younger generation’s aptitude for making statements of belief and values through social media outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are being peppered with beautiful images, provided by REI, that express people’s desire to forego the shopping mania of Nov. 27 for some good times outside. REI’s CEO didn’t just dream this up over the weekend. This is a carefully crafted media campaign designed to make REI stand out from other retailers.
REI is taking a risk. Undoubtedly, REI will lose sales it ordinarily would have earned from shoppers flooding its brick-and-mortar stores. Other outdoor retailers that are more online-based, but still have physical stores, could get away with this more easily, but not REI. Online shopping is plenty big with REI, but this is a company committed to in-store sales. Closing on Black Friday won’t put REI out of business, but it will feel this. The bottom line will be affected.
REI is the type of company that can get away with this. The first question a lot of people unfamiliar with REI’s business model would ask is, “What are the shareholders going to say?” But REI is not a publicly traded company. Despite its huge presence and impact on the outdoor retail industry, REI is still a co-op of members, just like it was when it was founded. This gives REI more latitude on decisions like this than, say, Macy’s, Target or Wal-Mart.
#OptOutside is a major statement of corporate values. The company’s CEO, Jerry Stritzke, had this to say in an open letter to customers: “For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.” This move goes beyond counterintuitive, as other retailers are opening not only earlier on Black Friday, but also on Thanksgiving Day. So while employees of those companies will have to work long hours and may have to squeeze in a Thanksgiving meal around their Thursday shift, REI employees will be getting paid not to work on Black Friday. So not only is the company going to lose money on sales, but will also spend money on workers who won’t be generating income for REI. In the corporate world, you don’t make this sort of financial commitment unless you really believe in it.
#OptOutside is also a strong statement to change overall cultural values. You’ve seen the footage of frenzied Black Friday shoppers gobbling up TVs, gadgets, clothes and toys, surging through glass doors and whipping out credit cards like it was the last day shopping would ever be allowed. People camping outside stores. Stories of hapless consumers being trampled by hordes of single-minded buyers. Even fights breaking out, sometimes with weapons. These are the extremes of Black Friday, to be sure, and the stories make the online rounds as endless Thanksgiving holiday clickbait. But they exist. REI is pumping an alternative narrative hard, that instead of spending so much energy buying stuff, that maybe we should spend the day burning energy on a bike, hiking a trail, climbing a crag or camping with friends. The storyline is that time outdoors is far more memorable and fulfilling than cashing in on doorbuster sales. Consumerism drives the economy and keeps millions of people employed, but too much of a profitable thing can be toxic. That’s my thinking, anyway, and at first glance, that appears to be the idea REI is trying to convey as well.
My plans for Black Friday have been developing over the past several weeks, long before #OptOutside was made public. I’m going to be in Tennessee that week, and if the weather and logistics cooperate, I’ll be in the Smokies hiking a mountain. But in spirit, I’m all in for #OptOutside. Who knows how long REI will keep this up, but I hope it becomes a lasting — and growing — trend.
So what do you all think? Will you shop till you drop, or are you going to get outdoors instead? And what do you think of what REI is doing? Give me a shout in the comments.