REI’s Courage to Lead a Black Friday Rebellion

REI’s Courage to Lead a Black Friday Rebellion

The Power and Popularity of Aligning Actions to Words

Every year around this time, we begin to extol virtues of the holiday season. Give to others, cherish what you have, express thanks and gratitude, etc. We accept the holiday season as a time for "giving," yet as a society our behaviors are dominated by "getting." While many have expressed dissatisfaction with our materialistic holiday culture, it wasn't until this year that a major retail company had the courage to walk away from the all-encompassing consumerism of Black Friday in search of something more meaningful.

In a landmark decision, Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the popular outdoor retailer, closed all 143 of their stores on Black Friday. Black Friday has been a top ten sales day for REI for many years, and choosing to close posed a significant financial risk for the company. Adding to the media frenzy accompanying this announcement was the news that REI paid employees to take the day off and explore the outdoors. Most organizations would declare this insanity. Retailers can't close their doors on the greatest shopping day of the year and expect things to go well for them — or can they?

For REI, closing on Black Friday is a choice that reflects something deeper than the bottom line. This decision shows a strong dedication to the personal lives of REI employees, as well as a commitment to its values and the mission it serves. It's no coincidence that REI is one of only 13 companies that have made the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since its inception in 1998. Companies on this list, which Great Place To Work® produces for Fortune, are characterized by strong trust-based relationships and values-based decision making. As such, REI is well-equipped to say no to Black Friday because they've had plenty of practice in choosing to uphold their company values when challenged by the norm.

Countless organizations tout employees as their most important assets, but few invest in their people and culture like REI has. In an industry that increasingly restricts employee's personal lives in order to grow market share, REI's track record of caring for employees is impressive. Over the last three years, as competition to become a recognized Best Company to Work For has increased, so have REI's scores for work/life balance. Their Black Friday stand is simply another way they actively support their employees during a retail season that demands much from them.

REI's decision is less a statement about the chaos that has become Black Friday and more a direct reflection of their commitment to their core values: authenticity, quality, service, respect, integrity and balance. As all companies that have made the 100 Best List know, it's this kind of values-based behavior that creates loyal customers and employees. In response to questions about their closing, REI CEO, Jerry Stritzke, replied, "This clearly is not a financially self-serving act. It's an act where we're making a very clear statement about a set of values."

Because REI is experienced in living its core values, leaders were able to acknowledge that the environment of Black Friday is contrary to their brand, values and mission. By being true to itself, REI not only reclaims the day, it redirects people's attention to the very place where its people find meaning: the outdoors. Their multi-media campaign, OptOutside, turned Black Friday into a consumer-supported movement that encouraged people to say no to long lines and frantic shopping, and yes to the great outdoors. Its viral hashtag #optoutside directed all photos posted with the tag to a webpage, where visitors could browse outdoor activities in their area and post pictures of their experiences.

The popularity of REI's decision has been undeniable. People online have praised REI for leading the way and taking a risk to make an impact. The media response to REI's decision has been overwhelming, with several national publications reporting on the announcement and its implications. Several companies joined REI in its ban of Black Friday, including Clif Bar, Geoffrey Packs, and Outdoor Research, a Seattle-based clothing company that closed not only its retail locations but its offices, factories and distribution centers as well.

While several companies opting out of Black Friday may not be enough to turn the tide of consumer behavior in the US, it is certainly a place to start. This phenomenon shows REI has managed to leverage its culture in a way that not only benefits its employees and other organizations around them, but the American culture at large.

At Great Place To Work, we've learned that trust is at the foundation of every great workplace. It's how leaders build dynamic employee and customer relationships that result in lasting success. Of course, one of the key ways to build trust is to consistently keep your word. Most companies say what they think consumers and employees want to hear, but the public is smarter than that. They know when a company is expressing true authenticity. Words alone do not inspire people to trust companies; words backed by actions do. If you declare you value something, take actions that prove it. There is a distinct power in doing so, and, as REI has proven, the world will take notice.

Hannah Elise Jones is an analyst at research and consulting firm Great Place To Work®.