By Michael Lanza

REI exploded a supernova in the retail universe when it announced last week that it’s closing all 143 stores on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and won’t process any online purchases until the following day. Employees will get a paid day off and be encouraged to get outside—and many undoubtedly will.

This is very cool if you work for REI, of course. But why should the rest of us care? I believe we should, for reasons that reach beyond REI’s walls, and because it’s good for our kids in ways not immediately obvious. And I think John Muir, Ed Abbey, and Jesus would agree. But more about those guys in a bit.

For starters, consider the simple fact that in the last week of October—before Halloween—people were talking about a shopping day at the end of November that has become a national ritual in preparation for a holiday at the end of December. Maybe that is, in itself, an indication that America’s cultural ship has strayed too far adrift on a sea of consumerism. And maybe that begins to make the case for why a message like REI’s #OptOutside campaign is so important.

 

Backpacking the John Muir Trail past Thousand Island Lake, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, California.

Mark Fenton on the John Muir Trail at Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California.

REI’s #OptOutside Campaign

Visit REI.com and you’ll see a fat banner counting down the days, hours, and minutes until REI employees #OptOutside on Black Friday. The website includes a statement from Chief Executive Jerry Stritzke explaining that, “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.”

REI’s #OptOutside campaign went viral on social media. Scores of traditional media outlets reported on it, ranging from CBS News to Backpacker.com. Forbes.com called REI’s move a “death knell for Black Friday.” Within days, outdoor-industry companies Outdoor Research, Clif Bar, and Gregory Packs announced their workers would #OptOutside on Black Friday, too.

While Black Friday has historically been a top 10 sales day for REI, Lulu Gephart, REI’s manager of digital engagement, told me via email that the board and management aren’t wringing hands over whether customers will make up for the day’s lost sales before or afterward. “We really aren’t looking at it with a short-term view,” she said. “This is about celebrating and building a lifetime of passion for the outdoors.”

One comment in Gephart’s response to me stood out as a statement of personal values that surely connects with millions of people: “We want people to get outside and spend time with family and friends, and our definition of success extends beyond money.” [My italics]

REI has tapped into a powerful sentiment in America.

It would be easy to cynically point out that the average REI customer is not a typical mall-going, lining-up-at-6 a.m.-on-Black-Friday shopper, so REI’s not really going out on a limb with this. It’s a pretty safe bet that loyal REI shoppers will embrace #OptOutside and shop at an REI store, rei.com, or the co-op’s online outlet on another day (probably during one of the retailer’s multiple sales). From that perspective, #OptOutside is a brilliant marketing campaign.

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Plus, REI, the nation’s largest consumer co-op with 5.5 million members (full disclosure: including me), is not a publicly traded, major retailer that depends heavily on big-discount days like Black Friday.

All true—but that misses the point.

Yes, REI is speaking to a certain type of consumer: people who love the outdoors and whose values probably lean much more toward conservation and living more lightly on the planet than unbridled consumerism.

No, REI doesn’t expect or want us to stop buying gear, and we won’t. I like gear as much as the next hiker, backpacker, skier, cyclist, climber, and paddler, and I use a lot of it.

But REI wields an outsized influence on the outdoor industry; for some brands, REI represents as much as half of total sales. Anything REI does sends out wide ripples, to other companies, other retailers, and to its 5.5 million members and beyond.

Let’s look at the social context in which REI’s #OptOutside campaign has launched.

 

Jeff Wilhelm kayaking Cliffside Rapid, Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho.

Jeff Wilhelm kayaking Cliffside Rapid, Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho.

A Nation of Workaholics

We are a nation of workaholics. A recent study by the Family Travel Association and the New York University School of Professional Studies found that more than half of respondents did not use all of their vacation days last year—a social phenomenon that has always baffled me on a personal level, but also speaks volumes about the priorities of Americans.

Let’s face it: Many of us who wouldn’t shop on Black Friday would work instead—even people who are actually entitled to the day off.

Today’s children emulate the habits of their parents—both generations spend a lot of time in front of electronic screens. But that proves even more disastrous for the health of kids than for adults. Only 17 percent of 15-year-olds get even an hour a day of vigorous activity. Today, children worldwide run a mile a minute and a half slower than their parents did. The result: skyrocketing rates of asthma, obesity, anxiety and depression. Nearly one in four American adolescents may be on the verge of developing Type 2 diabetes or already diabetic.

10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.

10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.

#OptOutside may not catch fire widely enough to spark a conflagration that reduces Black Friday, as we know it, to ashes. Societal attitudes don’t change rapidly.

But REI’s heft grants it the power to get noticed, and #OptOutside has done exactly that. What if it began a shift in how America views the balance between work, leisure and family time, getting outdoors, and the relative importance of buying more stuff in the big scheme of things? Research has found that spending money on material goods doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction, but spending money on experiences does. What if Americans transformed Black Friday into Green Friday and spent the day in the woods or on a mountain or a river instead?

REI’s not trying to dictate our values; it’s quite the opposite, actually. Producers and sellers of products often try to channel our values—look at the auto industry. The outdoor industry executes this strategy very well. REI has merely held a mirror up before us, and we like what we see. And it’s a really big mirror, in which are reflected hundreds of thousands, probably even millions of people who wield the force of consumers and voters. In this reflection, we view our power to shape our world.

Sometimes even those of us who cherish every moment we spend outdoors need to be reminded of what’s important to us. And that’s okay.

In a time when Wall Street investment companies deliberately sell financial products they know will lose money for clients, and a major worldwide auto maker deliberately built cars that cheat emissions tests, seeing a company act in a way that makes us feel good about spending money with it hits us like a cool breeze on a mountaintop.

As for my family, we’re very likely to #OptOutside on Black Friday. We won’t do it because of REI’s campaign, or because studies show it’s good for us, or because John Muir or Ed Abbey or Jesus would have done it. (Who would question whether Muir or Abbey would #OptOutside instead of shop on Black Friday? And I personally think Jesus would be an alpinist today. I mean, the guy had an amazing tolerance for suffering.)

Our kids have the entire week of Thanksgiving off from school, so even before REI’s #OptOutside announcement, we’d been planning to ski if we can find snow that week. If not, we’ll probably do something else that involves physical activity in nature, for the same reason we do it on any other Friday or day of the year that we can: because, like many REI customers, my family prefers to spend our leisure time outside.

We still represent a fairly small minority of Americans. When that changes, and many more people in this country value time outdoors more than Black Friday sales, maybe all of our lives will be better.

See all of my stories about family adventures, hiking, backpacking, paddling, and skiing at The Big Outside.

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