REI: Our plan to close stores on Black Friday is no PR stunt

"If it was just a PR stunt, we wouldn't be closing down our stores for the day," Ben Steele, REI's chief creative officer, told PRWeek.

SEATTLE: REI’s bold decision to close its doors on Black Friday so that its 12,000 employees are free to enjoy the paid vacation day as they wish may sound like a PR stunt, but the outdoor retailer is claiming it isn’t.

As part of its campaign, the 76-year-old cooperative is inviting the nation to join in by choosing to #OptOutside – or enjoy the outdoors instead of shop – to reconnect with family and friends during the holiday.

Although many PR pros are praising REI’s plan on social media, some critics are skeptical about it, positing that REI may be using the announcement to exploit its positioning and ultimately promote its products, noted Jim Joseph, Cohn & Wolfe’s president of the Americas and chief integrated marketing officer.

"If it was just a PR stunt, we wouldn’t be closing down our stores for the day," Ben Steele, REI’s chief creative officer, told PRWeek. "It is a very real action and wasn’t a decision we took lightly."

Not surprising, as Black Friday is one of REI’s top 10 sales days.

Steele explained that the idea for REI to opt out of Black Friday came about earlier this year. His comms team came up with the plan, and pulled in three PR firms – including Edelman, Spark, and Venables Bell & Partners – for assistance. REI had an existing relationship with Edelman and Spark, but engaged Venables in the spring.

"We came together as a group and asked ourselves what we wanted to do this holiday season and as we looked around at what Black Friday was and what it had become, we knew what we didn’t want to do – we felt it had gotten out of hand," said Steele. "Instead, we focused on the experience we wanted our employees and also our members to have on that day, which is to get them outdoors."

He added that the decision to do this was not so much a conversation about dollars and cents for REI, as much as it was about the values of the coop and how it can help get people outdoors and active.

In terms of whether or not REI has permanently opted out of future Black Fridays, Steele said that is yet to be determined.

"We are focused on our employees and members and based on their feedback, we will figure out what this means for next year’s holiday period and how we want to move forward," he said.

On the day itself, November 27, will feature a black takeover screen that encourages customers to #OptOutside. Steele noted, however, that customers will still be able to shop on the website but there will be a message reminding people that no one will there to process the order on that particular day.

In 2015 alone, REI has given $5.9 million to more than 300 nonprofits to take care of 1,000 outdoor spaces in communities across America. To keep the #OptOutside conversation ongoing in the lead up to Black Friday, REI’s VP of communications and public affairs Alex Thompson said a number of people from the nonprofit will be sharing their point of view on why the outdoors is an important part of life.

REI has created a microsite and as of Wednesday, more than 600,000 people have pledged to "opt outside" on Black Friday. The site also features recommended hiking trails, many built and nurtured by nonprofits supported by REI. Coop employees and members will be sharing thousands of outdoor experiences throughout the holiday season and afterward. The brand will also place long-form content on Medium and promote the campaign on social media.

Why it works
Although some see REI’s plan as a PR stunt, Peter Himler, principal of Flatiron Communications, said the decision as a good business move.

"This has made people more interested in shopping at REI," he explained. "When you see a company not being motivated by sales and wanting to give back, it builds esteem."

And the main reason REI’s plan is garnering so many pats on the back? Its decision to opt out of Black Friday is core to what REI is as a brand, said C&W's Joseph.

"It is all about spending time outdoors, so by saying the brand is more concerned about its employees spending time outdoors than it is about opening on Black Friday, that is part and parcel of what its policies are as a brand," he added.

Consumers will also appreciate the move, especially as they now commonly want to know where brands stand on certain policies and if they treat staffers fairly, noted Joseph.

"It created tremendous media buzz that will lead to brand loyalty among consumers," agreed Ken Shuman, VP of communications, NerdWallet. "This should lead to record online sales."

Although REI has been aggressively promoting its decision – purchasing a promoted trend #OptOutside on Twitter and taking out full-page advertisements in newspapers – Joseph said this does not take away from the gesture.

"If it was something that wasn’t true to who they are then it would be suspect and it wouldn’t be authentic," he said. "They are not just doing pieces of advertising on social media platforms just to get attention; they are actually trying to provide content – with their microsite giving tips on how to spend time outdoors – and bring value to their consumers, all tied to who they are as a brand."

Pure Communications’ chief strategist Mike Huckman concurred, adding that heavy media and social promotion is just a part of the playbook you have to use these days in order to help ensure success for any campaign.

"[REI] was smart in being first one out of the gate with a very positive message that is tied to their brand," said Joseph. "Now, any other retail move is going to be compared to that which is bold and disruptive and totally in line with who their consumer is."

It is important to note, however, that opting out of Black Friday doesn’t magically leverage just any company into the public’s good graces, however. For big box retailers, such as The Home Depot and Walmart, the move would just scream PR ploy, according to Himler.

"Big box retailers would have to think long and hard on how to do something like this," he said. "For REI, given its granola type of reputation and its outdoor orientation, the narrative of ‘take Friday off and go hiking’ works better for them."

Consumers are actually relying on certain companies being open every day, added Joseph. For those retailers, holding Black Friday sales makes sense.

"Businesses should all make their decisions based on what consumers want, being fair to employees, and what their brand is focused on," he said.

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