REI's unprecedented decision to close on Black Friday and pay its employees to go outside instead is making a huge splash, with more than 500,000 people using the #OptOutside hashtag on social media so far. Such a flood of support, all within 24 hours, is making the company's decision to publicly shun Black Friday look more and more like a stroke of marketing genius.
“Nobody’s ever done this before so we didn't really spend a lot of time trying to project results,” Ben Steele, the company's chief creative officer, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “We’re really overwhelmed by this early response."
REI, which operates on a co-op model and brings in more than $2 billion in annual sales, shared its plan to close its 143 stores on Black Friday last night. It was a bold move for a major retailer to turn its back on one of the largest shopping days of the year, dubbed by many in the industry as "the Super Bowl of shopping." Steele, who started at REI in January, said the company "had a lot of conversations around the risks and the tradeoffs" of shuttering on one of its top 10 sales days.
“At the end of the day, it really was for us not about dollars and cents, but what’s right for this co-op, what’s right for our employees, what’s right for our customers,” he said, noting that 12,000 employees will get the day off. “At the risk of sounding corny, it was the ‘doing the right thing’ that became the focus for us.”
After telling employees of the decision, "the next thing you hear is, ‘I’ve been in retail for 35 years, 40 years, and I’ve never had that day off,’” Steele said. “It suddenly becomes pretty powerful and pretty human in a different way. Letting people really focus on what Thanksgiving is about, being with the people you love, taking stock of it."
It's also getting REI a lot of fans. On Facebook and Twitter, REI is garnering lots of love and loyalty for its move. It's counting the number of people using the #OptOutside hashtag across social channels on its "Opt Outside" website, where it also offers local options for camping, hiking and the like. The number is steadily climbing (much as it hopes you will, on rocks, post-Thanksgiving.)
Indeed, it's a contrast to the rest of the retail industry, which has been criticized for dragging Black Friday sales into Thanksgiving day itself in recent years, forcing employees to work on a cherished national holiday. More bad publicity has come from the chaotic, sometimes violent incidents associated midnight shopping frenzies on a day meant for expressing gratitude with loved ones. A number of chains, like Ikea, T.J. Maxx and GameStop, have started closing on Thanksgiving, while others, like Patagonia and Everlane, have urged customers to repair goods they already own or donated profits from Black Friday.
REI is aware that its status as a co-op, free from the pressure of stock market investors or private equity owners, made its decision possible. The company isn't criticizing other retailers for staying open.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a retailer shut their doors on Black Friday — I think it’s a hard thing to do" Steele said. "It would have been a heck of a lot harder if we were a public company."
Steele also noted that the company isn't, by any means, anti-deals.
“People are certainly free to make the choices they want to make, and I want to make really clear we’re not anti-deals, anti-sales or anti-value,” Steele said. “But it’s a good conversation and it’s a nice moment for individuals and for a wider group to think about, 'How do I spend my time? Who do I want to be?' Those are good conversations to be having. “