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Did REI Just Kill Black Friday?

In my lifetime, Black Friday has grown into a behemoth. I don’t really remember it being a major part of the holiday season when I was young, partly because I wasn’t paying attention to consumer habits and marketing trends as a child. But it was also because it just wasn’t a thing until fairly recently – it started to grow in the 1980s and ‘90s, but as recently as five years ago it still wasn’t the biggest shopping day of the year. But that time is past.

Today it’s the business that doesn’t try to maximize Black Friday that stands out from the pack. It just isn’t done. And yet, in 2015, it will be. Recreational Equipment, Inc. – which you probably know better as REI, or “that store where your outdoorsy friend spends all her money” – will close on Black Friday this year.

“For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors,” said REI president Jerry Stritzke in a message on their website. “We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.” They’ve even set up a microsite to help drive people not to buy, but to go outside and experience the world – with messaging, social sharing, a guide to find good trails near you, and a gallery of others’ adventures to get readers in the spirit.

This is a strong, positive stance that comes from a genuine place for REI. But it’s also one that’s relatively convenient for them to take, and it might not be one that other companies and retailers can take – at least not quite yet.

What do your customers really want?

As a co-operative, REI is run a little differently from other businesses, and even other retailers. It has over 5.5 million members who pay a one-time fee to own stake in the company, and 80% of their sales are to members. "As a co-op...we define success a little differently,” Stritzke said. “It's much broader than just money. How effectively do we get people outside?"

When a business’ mission isn’t “just money” – though REI is certainly making plenty of money, with over $2 billion in sales in 2014 alone – it naturally follows that the business will do things like this. And it also naturally follows that it will be received well. According to Salesforce, REI’s accompanying #OptOutside social media campaign has generated 10 times as many Black Friday-related social media conversations as any other brand. That’s partly because REI is truly meeting the needs of its audience.

In a Forbes piece, Micah Solomon says REI is simply following an important customer trend. People want to buy from authentic brands, and REI is bolstering its credentials here. They’re not saying that people should spend more time outside out one side of their mouth while telling you about great deals from the other. They’re sacrificing a day of sales to allow their employees and customers to live the brand’s creed. Not a typical day, but the day retailers plan for. People also want “attached meaning” to the things they buy; that is, not just a carabiner or a pair of socks, but a product that says something about them. Buying from REI now means supporting a bulwark against consumerism. It means saying no to Black Friday, and yes to something more.

The changing face of selling

That is all part of a larger trend in marketing, buying, selling, and the economy altogether. As the realities of employment change, according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Caille Millner, businesses have to sell more than just products. She cites a K-Hole report on the future of sales that says something striking. Millner says: 

It explained to retailers the basics of sales when everyone can buy products at any time (thanks to the Internet) but no one has any money to buy anything (thanks to stagnant wages). I reread the report and discovered that K-Hole’s answer to our quixotic consumer moment was that companies should essentially sell ambient feelings instead.

“Smart companies know that one-time monumental purchases are less valuable than passive awareness of the brand 24/7, and that the real goal is to keep consumers continually in the brand flow,” they wrote.

One could easily argue that REI has never had more “passive awareness” of their brand than they do right now. It also seems clear that this Black Friday “stunt” has positioned REI as one of the industry leaders in selling the “ambient feeling” of authentic outdoorsmanship. For many, this will cement an opinion of REI, and it’s precisely the one the company needs to be able to succeed in a changing retail and business landscape.

When is a risk not really a risk?

For a few reasons, though, REI’s anti-Black Friday stance is less precarious than it would appear at first glance. First of all, while REI is the first store to forego Black Friday, they’re not the first to step back a bit. While the deals and sales have somewhat ballooned, to the point where they have started to encroach on Thanksgiving Day itself, some businesses have already begun to push back.

Many are officially closed for Thanksgiving, while re-opening for Black Friday. Others have responded by extending Black Friday sales throughout November and December rather than limiting them to only a single day. That, of course, has the two-pronged benefit of reducing the reliance on a single day for retailers, as well as helping to keep people shopping by prompting them with lower prices.

This—probably helped by some public backlash to the occasional barbarism of the throngs of deal-seekers on Black Fridays past—has had the effect of deflating the Black Friday bubble a little bit. In 2014, 86.9 million people shopped on Black Friday. That sounds like a lot, and it is. But it was down from the year before, and the amount the average shopper spent on Black Friday dropped 6.4% from 2013. It’s still a massive shopping day, but according to the National Retail Foundation only 55% of holiday shoppers spent money on Thanksgiving weekend in 2014, and 42% of that spending was online (an avenue that REI will keep open to shoppers this year even as stores close.

Knowing your audience

In some ways, the ability to do something like what REI is doing this holiday season is a privileged position. It’s not something that every business is going to be able to do in 2015. A large part of that is because REI caters to a very specific kind of person, and it’s precisely the audience that will hail a move like this as visionary, rather than reacting with disappointment or even anger.

For many of us, Black Friday represents something negative – the spectre of money reaching into our holidays and replacing family togetherness with crass consumerism, or the selfishness of a person shoving another person aside just to try to buy something. And yes, those things are bad. But as Megan Garber of the Atlantic notes, for some people those negatives don’t outweigh the positives.

But Black Friday is also, as pseudo-holidays go, more class-conscious than most. It is thus more divisive than most. If you can't normally afford a flat-screen/iPad/Vitamix/Elsa doll/telephone, Black Friday discounts could offer you the opportunity to purchase those items. If you can normally afford those things, though, you may well decide that the trip to the mall, with its "throngs" and its "masses" and its sweaty inconvenience, isn't worth the trouble.

For a business like Wal-Mart, the audience of customers is essentially everyone in the country. It’s the wealthy and the working class, the middle class and the impoverished and everyone in between. Ditching a sale won’t necessarily bring about overwhelming support from the customer base. Many won’t care, because they have more important things to worry about. Others may actually be upset.

But when you’re a business like REI, with a consumer base that’s generally more affluent and more likely to have the ability to make decisions for reasons other than cost, quitting Black Friday is not only a possibility – it may be advisable.

Long live Black Friday?

REI will not kill Black Friday. As Garber says:

Black Friday has been so thoroughly absorbed into the American consciousness that it has spread to encompass multiple days—and, for that matter, multiple weeks. "It used to be called Black Friday, then it became Thursday, now it’s a week long," Wal-Mart's chief U.S. merchant, Duncan Mac Naughton, told the Wall Street Journal. "Maybe we should just call it November."

And that’s okay. If a single day of furor over toys, electronics, and other goods is replaced by low prices for almost two months, that’s probably something you can get behind. But if you’re a business owner contemplating following in REI’s footsteps now or in the near future, pause first. Think about who you sell to, and what you’re selling. Think about your employees, and whether the stress of a hectic day-after-Thanksgiving is outweighed by the bonus pay they might get. Think about whether your business can sustain itself while missing out on the biggest sales day of the year, and whether you’ll actually see a benefit from it in the long run.

For REI, this is an authentic and positive move. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.