REI’s #OptOutside is part of a bigger retail strategy

It started as a little rumble, this REI idea of closing on Black Friday.

Sure, it was retail sacrilege, closing stores on what was once the busiest shopping day of the year. But the idea was also pure gold. The move, which REI initiated on the day after Thanksgiving last year, looks like a brilliant strategy.

In the midst of the ongoing debate over whether or not stores should open on Thanksgiving (it appears most do), the REI move garnered a huge amount of publicity  — almost entirely positive, which is so strange in this era of Twitter wars.

But armed with the #OptOutside hashtag, members of the Twittersphere are embracing the idea of telling stores to take a hike, while planning to take a hike of their own.

Nearly 2 million people have endorsed the Black Friday closing by clicking a button on the REI site, a site which prominently hosts a feature that lets people find outdoor activities near them.

“Fundamentally, we believe that being outside makes us our best selves – healthier and happier, physically and mentally,” REI CEO Jerry Stritzke said, according to the company’s news release. “But as a nation, we’re still spending over 90 percent of our lives indoors and it’s a trend we need to tackle. I love that there is a community of people in this country who dedicate their lives to that mission, so together, we are asking America, ‘Will you go out with us?’”

It’s not just the Twittersphere and REI itself that are embracing the idea, either. The state of California, which is offering free admission to many of its state parks on Black Friday, is too. The idea is to build a Green Friday movement. (I for one am not anxious to have another color-coded holiday-related day. But I digress.)

California ran the free park thing last year, as did Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Minnesota, Missouri and Delaware, according to the Mercury News of San Jose, Calif.

Oh, and about that brilliant strategy by REI? I’m not saying it was a publicity stunt, though you’ve got to figure PR considerations came into play. Instead, I’d argue it’s more of a reflection of REI’s overall strategy.

It’s also a reminder that as the retail field becomes increasingly competitive, retailers need to up their customer experience game. Yes, it’s a broad — and possibly overused — term, but constant chatter is hardly without reason.

Consumers expect a lot more from whomever they are dealing with in the era of Uber, same-day delivery, endless aisle and, yes, Amazon. And so, customer experience can mean everything from offering expertise, ensuring faster delivery, easing returns, providing relevant and personalized recommendations and site experiences and learning what customers want from how they behave.

The outdoor-gear shop has been a leader in creating a whole customer experience, a vibe even, that says REI is more than a store. It’s a movement, a happening, a way of life. It didn’t start with going dark on Black Friday.

For its part, REI has been working on customer experience for years. It aggressively jumped into not just “omnichannel,” but digital-first: The idea that shopping should be organized around mobile devices, because shoppers organize their lives around their mobile phones.

When REI Senior Vice President of Digital Retail Brad Brown presented the philosophy at Shop.org in 2014, he explained that the No. 1 website visited by shoppers in REI stores was rei.com, a sign the retailer had nailed the multichannel shopping experience. It’s the sort of thing that elevates the relationship between shopper and retailer beyond a transaction.

Closing its doors on Black Friday is just an extension of that strategy. REI is a store that has built an image that is all about the outdoor experience — not all about buying the stuff you need to have an outdoor experience.

To paraphrase a coworker of mine, REI has decided it doesn’t want to be the best place to sell you a six-person tent. It wants to be the place that gives you the best camping experience with your kids.

As if to confirm my hunch that REI has been surprised by what its year-old, one-day decision has grown into, Stritzke said the #OptOutside campaign is something bigger than what REI had in mind a year ago.

“It took on a life of its own and became about much more than REI. #OptOutside should be a platform for the nonprofits and public servants who are on the front lines of the outdoor community,” he said in the statement. “They’re the ones who make the outdoors accessible for everyone.”

Stritzke said more than 275 agencies, organizations and companies have formally joined the #OptOutside movement. And, he says, REI is promoting those people, many of whom help make outdoor activities possible, to the role of official spokespeople of the movement. The retailer intends to publish some of their reflections on the company blog.

And so, in the end, REI is pushing the boundaries of what it started. It is taking ownership of the movement by giving the movement away.

 

Photo of Jerry Stritzke courtesy of REI

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy. This post originally appeared on BloomReach’s website.

 

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