REI challenges not just ‘Black Friday’ but also a modern life lived indoors

We’re a different kind of company — and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us. 

— Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO, Recreational Equipment Inc.

Of all the many things for which I’m grateful each Thanksgiving, high on the list is that because Sallie detests crowds more than she loves shopping, I will never be asked to take part in the madness of Black Friday.

And way up there this year is the leadership of REI’s Jerry Stritzke, with his bold decision to close his stores on Friday but pay his employees anyway – thus putting his brand, his sales numbers and a chunk of payroll behind the resistance movement to our national shopping holiday.

This may not be quite as radical a move as Patagonia’s ads of a few years ago specifically urging customers against buying a spending new gear jacket unless they really needed it. But already it has been more effective as a wake-up call on consumerist habits and a nudge to park the car by a trail instead of a mall.

Only a few retailers have followed REI’s lead thus far, despite positive publicity like the Forbes column praising Stritzke as a retailing rogue and timely disruptor:

Kudos to REI. They are zigging when everyone else is zagging. They are showing their members, their employees, and the rest of the retail world that success isn’t just about money. It’s about what you stand for. They are inviting the nation to join in by using #OptOutside to signify they are choosing to reconnect with nature this holiday season.

Among the few examples I found was Treehouse, an “eco-friendly home improvement retailer” based in Austin, Texas, that has been closing on the Friday after Thanksgiving for three years now and thinks REI might be following its lead.

Go outside and play

But I actually think the don’t-go-shopping portion of Stritzke’s call may prove less important than his suggestion that people get outside instead (and he’s looking at you, too, if you avoid the brick-and-mortar side of Black Friday in favor of online excess).

We believe that a life lived outdoors is a life well lived and we aspire to be stewards of our great outdoors. We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday. Please join us and inspire us with your experiences. We hope to engage millions of Americans and galvanize the outdoor community to get outside.

As of this writing on Tuesday morning, #OptOutside had generated more than 850,000 suggestions, tips, photos and other encouragements for finding an outdoor venue for this sweet, seasonal transition from late fall to early winter.

In response, parks in many states – possibly led by the example of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources – are offering free admission or other discounts to visitors on Friday.

In California, the private Save the Redwoods League is sponsoring a free day among the world’s largest living plants at 49 locations across the state. Missouri, where state park admission is always free, is waiving campsite charges for hardy overnighters.

Even a couple of national parks in Washington state joined the movement, with Olympic National Park’s superintendent Sarah Creachbaum declaring that:

The day after Thanksgiving is the perfect time for some fresh air and a little exercise. We invite individuals, couples, groups and families to get out and enjoy a fee-free day in either Olympic National Park or Mount Rainier National Park. We’re calling the day after Thanksgiving “Green Friday” at Olympic National Park.

History of shopping frenzy

It’s worth noting that Black Friday is not an entirely modern phenomenon, although it didn’t gain status as a national spectacle until the first few years of this millennium.

Sallie’s family often set out for Cleveland on the Friday after Thanksgiving, both for the shopping and for the pleasures of seeing a big downtown decked out for Christmas. My family stayed home, but then our best alternative was Indianapolis.

As a young man with a young family of my own, I was as attuned to big sales and bargain-hunting as anyone. But I worked for newspapers, whose holiday policies followed the patterns of police departments, fire stations and hospitals, so I worked most of those Fridays and a fair number of Thanksgivings, too.

Nor were mob scenes unheard of before modern times, although the mayhem was generally below current levels, which a blogger at blackfridaydeathcount.com says has resulted in 7 deaths and 98 newsworthy injuries since 2006.

From a history piece prepared by Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writing at Visual Thesaurus:

Retailers would like you to believe that it’s the day when stores turn a profit on the year, thus “going into the black.” But don’t you believe it: the true origins come from traffic-weary police officers in Philadelphia in the early 1960s.

He goes on to quote a PR newsletter from 1961:

For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.

Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by the merchants with their Deputy City Representative, Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives. He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.

The media cooperated in spreading the news of the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia, the popularity of a “family-day outing” to the department stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the increased parking facilities, and the use of additional police officers for guaranteeing a free flow of traffic ….

Or, maybe, Buy Nothing

A take on Black Friday I hadn’t expected turned up at the petition site Care2, which argues that the consumerist holiday fervor burdens not only the retail workers who lose the free Friday that a possible majority of other workplaces now grant, but also the households of limited means who may feel that reluctant participation in the frenzy is their best shot at stretching scarce shopping dollars. Sad but undoubtedly true.

Meanwhile, some are crediting REI – on scant evidence – with encouraging a welcome trend among retailers to abandon an even awfuller modern practice, notably pioneered by our hometown heavies Target and Best Buy, to start the Black Friday surge on Thanksgiving Day itself. Staples and Lowes are among the chains often nominated for this honor roll.

Just to show, again, that REI’s leadership is more reasonable than radical, consider the alternative of Buy Nothing Day, an international anti-consumerism protest which started in Canada in 1992 and falls on the last Saturday in November in most places but in the U.S. has been moved, after the Black Friday trend began to gather steam, to the day after Thanksgiving:

As the year-end approaches keep in mind that an object will never make you happy. It might for a few minutes, maybe even days, but in the end your experiences are all you’ve got.

So this year why not get your family together and do something wildly different. Ignore Black Friday. Try buying almost nothing for Christmas and you might experience the most joyous holiday season you’ve ever had. Buy nothing and experience everything.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/24/2015 - 12:40 pm.

    It seems myopic, then, for REI’s businesses to be housed in suburban big boxes that require customers to drive to them.

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