It’s Time to Blaze a New Trail Through the Black Friday Madness

A few months ago, we managers at outdoors outfitter REI got let in on a top secret plan, one we couldn’t even share with our spouses. It was about our company’s plans for Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year for many retail stores. For me, managing my way through Black Friday madness is like a coerced tradition. I’ve worked this day for 27 years straight, more than half of my life (I’m 46). I’ve spent the past 13 Black Fridays working for REI — I manage the flagship store in Bloomington, Minnesota. So when I arrived for the first morning meeting at the company’s annual off-site this year, at the Sunriver Resort near Bend, Oregon, I expected to hear a bit about the plans for a special promotion or sale. Hopefully not a repeat of the offer we did one year, in which the first 200 people who showed up at a store got a gift card with a surprise value of up to $200. It brought out a lot of bad behavior and greed, mostly from people who came in for the card and then left.

There was no way I could have guessed what would actually happen.

I was sitting in the balcony with my best friend Jim Bennett, manager of the Raleigh, North Carolina, store, who’s worked every Black Friday at REI for 28 years. People jokingly call us Chaos and Mayhem, and our favorite movie is Dumb & Dumber. On this day we were cracking wise like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.

Then a bunch of our senior leaders were joined onstage by CEO Jerry Stritzke who’d given the go-ahead to break with retail tradition: This Black Friday, REI is closing for the day; the doors will be locked at all 143 physical stores; we’re shutting down HQ and our two distribution centers; the website will encourage people to opt outside rather than shop; and all of us, all 12,000 employees, will get paid to…enjoy the outdoors.

We were speechless, save a few choice celebratory expletives. Then we went flying out of our chairs and started hugging and hollering. For five sustained minutes, everyone was just cheering and clapping. I could see the whole audience, several hundred managers and leaders, below. Some were actually crying.

In case it’s not abundantly clear, REI isn’t your average retailer. For one, we’re a co-op, which means members share in profits; they get a dividend each year. More important, as a co-op we can focus less on selling stuff, more on a singular goal: helping people get outside. Lots of good stuff shake out of the co-op model. For example, in 2015, we invested $5.9 million to 300-plus local and national organizations that care for more than 1,000 outdoor places.

“I hope you realize what you’ve got here. You’ve got people buying into who you are and what you’re doing. You’ve really got a religion.”

Jim and I wondered whether any other retailers would follow suit and shut down on the busiest day of the year for retail, whether this would create a ripple effect. Either way, in Jim’s words, the closing puts perspective on things like Thanksgiving. For a retailer to take this kind of step is huge. And we at REI can only do it because we’re a co-op that values members, employees, and partner organizations over profits.

Of course, some of the tears in the Great Hall following the big announcement were flowing because, for the first time in decades people like Jim and I won’t be thinking about how to navigate the traffic and madness while we’re still digesting turkey and stuffing. Jim is planning to spend the extra day with his family at a nearby lake, maybe take the kayaks out on the water or go biking or running on the roads around the lake. I’m thinking about what to do with my wife, son, and daughter. I’ve got some trails right by my house where we can go snowshoeing. There will be a lot people around. It’ll be cold. I’m thinking pond hockey.

Isn’t this how we all should’ve all been thinking? Instead, we spend all day Thursday thankful for what we have, then on Friday we wake up at the crack of dawn to go out and get more. What happened to us?

Until this year, I never thought that Black Friday felt right at REI. We’re a group that refers to sales associates as inspired guides, after all. Many are experts on where to go and have fun outside. You can’t take time to share that passion if there are 2,000 people pounding down your door when you open. Black Friday just feels like the antithesis of what we’re trying to do.

The retail guru and environmental psychologist Paco Underhill (author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and others) came and spoke to us a few years ago, and he said, “I hope you realize what you’ve got here. You’ve got people buying into who you are and what you’re doing. You’ve really got a religion.” If you work here, you realize it. We want to be here for a reason. The people I work with are my friends, because we’re all in a fight for a quality of life. We all enjoy doing the same kinds of things and fuel each other’s interests and adventures. “My coworkers are the biggest part of my life outside of my family,” Jim says. Maybe it sounds corny to people on the outside, but not people who go outside. The outside is good for you. It’s healthy for you. And when you come to a company and everyone feels that way, then you get pretty geeked up for it.

Back at the REI meeting in the Great Hall the cheers finally died down and we knew precisely how to channel all our energy. Bend is one of the best places we could have been. There’s incredible mountain biking, hiking, and climbing. So hundreds of us headed outside, gathered gear, and quickly came up with a plan to connect and build about four-and-a-half miles of mountain biking trails from scratch. The forest service said that our efforts amounted to a year’s worth of work.

We finished in a day. Search our trails map for directions on how to get there.