Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, REI will once again lock up the doors of all 151 stores win an effort to encourage people to get outside. More than 12,000 REI employees are given the day off with pay to focus on what’s important, says Alex Thompson, VP of Brand Stewardship and Impact.
The closure extends beyond retail stores. When customers visit the website on November 23 and 24, 201, they’ll find a clear message urging people to put down their wallets and go for a hike instead. While customers can bypass the message and still browse, no online orders will be processed on those days.
This is a bold move for a company that reports that Black Friday is historically one of its most profitable days of the year. “OptOutside was very deliberately and completely disconnected from any sales metric,” explains Thompson when asked what the company loses in profit by closing on the busiest shopping day of the year.
“The only metric that was important to us was the response from employees,” he says. The thought process was to focus on the longer-range health of the organization. And it’s paying off, with an estimated one million new members expected this year. He adds that employee and member engagement is at historic levels.
No surprise, employees love #OptOutside. When REI leaders first announced the stores’ closure and the OptOutside movement in 2015, it was to a group of 300 store managers.
“With some managers being with a store for 10, 20, or 30 years, there were people in the room who hadn’t had those days off in decades,” Thompson says. The announcement was followed by a standing ovation and tears. In that first year, there was at least 20,000 posts on social media from 12,000 employees alone, in addition to dozens of handwritten letters.
#OptOutside continues to grow with launch of search engine
Closing the doors and urging customers to not shop online seemed crazy, especially on the busiest shopping days of the year. “In the first year we announced this, we raised a lot of eyebrows,” Thompson says. But to their amazement, 1.6 million people declared they would OptOutside, choosing not to shop on Black Friday, but to get outside instead. More than 170 organizations also joined in, including national and state parks that declared they’d be open for free. “It was a remarkable experience,” Thompson says.
“In the second year, you’d think the novelty would lose its sheen,” he says. Instead, it exploded. Six million people opted outside and 700 organizations jumped on board.
Now in the third year, REI hopes to grow the movement even further with its new #OptOutside search engine, launching today (rei.com/optoutside). Users search by an experience, such as camping in winter or hiking at sunset.
For example, if someone searches “hiking with dogs”, a plethora of related images from Instagram with the hashtag #OptOutside appear. Click on an image, and you’ll get lots of beta sourced from the local community: descriptions, directions, ratings, and conditions.
“It’s less about browsing by something you want to buy and more about the experience that appeals to you,” Thompson says.
While it may seem like bad business move to close on these days, the company leaders are confident in the decision. With a 2016 revenue of $2.56 billion, it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.