Jennifer Karr-Lee, the manager of REI’s Seattle store, remembers the leadership meeting three years ago where executives first announced the #OptOutside initiative as if it took place just hours ago.
“I don’t think any of us in that room could ever have dreamt that we would do that as a retailer, particularly myself as a manager. That’s just what you do. You work Black Friday,” Karr-Lee recalls. “Immediately following the announcement, there was shouting, and crying, celebrating, hugging and jumping. It was just wild.”
And wildly successful as well. Black Friday traditionally had been one of the retailer’s biggest business days of the year, so closing all 151 of its stores the day after Thanksgiving, agreeing to process no online sales whatsoever, and deciding to pay all 12,000 employees to #OptOutside with family and friends was a huge risk.
REI is a co-op that allows customers to pay $20 for a lifetime membership and part ownership of the company. In 2015, the first year of the #OptOutside campaign, REI posted its largest-ever membership growth. It also witnessed a 9.3 percent jump in revenue to $2.4 billion and a 23 percent jump in digital sales that year.
In the past two years, more than 700 diverse organizations – including the National Park Service, Subaru and the YMCA – have partnered with REI on #OptOutside.
“Right now, I think people are looking for a moment to take a breath, reground themselves and come together," said Jerry Stritzke, REI's chief executive officer. "More than 700 organizations and nearly 8 million people have joined #OptOutside over the past two years. We could not be more thankful.
“But last year we stepped back and said we can do more," he continued. "We asked how we could offer new practical tools and inspiration. So we have captured the experiences of the outdoor community and organized them in a way that no one has done before.”
Connecting with consumers
As such, this year, REI is launching an “experiential search engine.” It features images pulled entirely from #OptOutside user-generated content on Instagram, augmented with real-time information about locations and experiences across the country. For example, users who click on an image of a hiker can see the name of the specific trail featured, the trail’s difficulty rating, directions to the trailhead, recent user reviews of the experience, and related expert advice from REI.
“I have always loved shopping at REI, spending time at stores in the Puget Sound area, and my hometown of Minneapolis,” said Karen Shore of Kent. “But I thought #OptOutside was brilliant. It made me love REI even more.”
Charles Trevail, CEO at Omnicom's C Space, a global customer collaboration consultancy, held up #OptOutside as a future model for retail marketing. “REI's much-lauded decision is an example of what happens when a brand has a truly empathetic understanding of its customers, and uses that understanding to create experiences that customers value,” he wrote in a 2015 article for Ad Age.
Diminished appeal of Black Friday
Clearly, #OptOutside made an impact that continues to reverberate. And at the same time, it’s also true that Black Friday no longer holds the siren call over retail consumers that it sounded as recently as a few years ago. According to Accenture’s annual Holiday Shopping Survey, more than half of respondents (52 percent) said they are less likely to shop the day after Thanksgiving this year than in previous years. Half of respondents also said that they were less likely to shop on Thanksgiving, and 42 percent said they were less likely to shop on Cyber Monday.
One of the biggest reasons people gave for skipping Black Friday is simply that bargain shopping has become a year-round event. According to the survey, 44 percent of those surveyed said that they're less inclined to shop on Black Friday because they can get equally good discounts on other days. Furthermore, 64 percent said that they shop for holiday gifts throughout the year. Retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s have begun offering deals all year to compete with online companies like Amazon, and to match increasing consumer expectations for everyday discounts.
According to National Retail Federation data, 99 million people said they shopped in stores over Thanksgiving weekend last year. And while a lot, that is still 3 million fewer folks than in 2015.
Enjoying the day
Regardless the reason for avoiding stores on Black Friday, REI’s Karr-Lee has a plan. The first year she opted to get outside, she tried something she’d never done before and went mountain biking with some coworkers. In 2016, she went for a hike with her dad and sister. This year, the time off enables her to drive to Oregon to see family, and she suspects they’ll be outdoors then too.
“I’ve worked in retail a long time, and I’ve been with REI for 14 years,” she says. “#OptOutside encourages everyone to take the time and do what they love. For many of us that is something outside.
“Being with family and getting outside this holiday weekend makes us even more grateful to get back to work at REI, where we hope people will be even more inspired to shop.”
Ways to participate
Here are a few ways you can #OptOutside this Black Friday in the Seattle area:
- Inspiration: Check out the #OptOutside hub and search for activities you’re interested in, paired with regional tags. For example, “waterfalls” and “Seattle” or “Hiking in the Cascades.” This search will pull up photos from people who have decided to #OptOutside using those tags as well as local suggestions.
- Explore IslandWood on Bainbridge Island: IslandWood is encouraging local families to #OptOutside by hosting a free day to explore the 250-acre campus on Bainbridge Island on Nov. 24. The event, Afternoon on the Trails, hosts hundreds of people who want to hike the trails, explore the treehouses, ponds, and meadows, and learn about the nonprofit.
- Cross-country ski Methow Trails: Four hours from Seattle, the Methow Valley is better suited for those able to head out on a long-weekend getaway. The nation’s largest groomed Nordic ski trail system in North America with 120 miles of trails encourages people to #OptOutside on Black Friday by offering free skiing on Nov. 24.
- Hike, bike, and snowshoe: Marc, an REI Outdoor School instructor in Seattle, discusses some of his favorite ways to #OptOutside in the area. His advice? “Bike the Burke Gilman Trail through Seattle. It’s a 50-mile trail but you can go as short or far as you’d like, and there’s lots of great places to eat and drink along the way. The Duckabush River Trail on the Olympic Peninsula can be accessed via car or ferry and is a great option too. For those more advanced, some of my favorite options are snowshoeing to Lanham Lake, Hex Mountain, Mt. Si, or out of Paradise, Mt. Rainier. If you’re snowshoeing, you need to be prepared for ALL winter conditions including sudden winter storms, tons of snow, and potential avalanche conditions. Winter in the Cascades is no joke.”
- Learn something new and try it out on Nov. 24: Whether you’re new to the outdoors or a seasoned adventurer, REI offers classes, outings, and events that will equip you with the skills and knowledge to get outdoors this Black Friday. Prepare for your day outside by finding a program near you at REI.com/learn.