rei’s optoutside campaign a major boost (photo by

In this first week of December, we are in the thick of the holiday shopping season. And while many retailers ramped up sales and staff on Black Friday (and even Thanksgiving), REI did something remarkable: they opted out of it all. They shuttered their stores on the biggest sales day of the year. And it’s done wonders for their reputation in the days following Black Friday.

REI’s #OptOutside Campaign

Prior to Black Friday, REI announced their #OptOutside campaign. Instead of opening their stores to the shopping masses, they encouraged their employees and customers to spend the day outside rather than in the mall or shopping online. REI even made Black Friday a paid holiday for employees.

It wasn’t just REI stores that were shuttered on Black Friday: The REI website had a black takeover screen that encouraged online shoppers to get outside. Customers were able to view products and make purchases, but orders were not processed until the next day.

REI’s refusal to participate in the big sales of Black Friday was for many a refreshing change of pace to the typical frenzied shopping day that is the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, nearly 1.5 million people joined REI in their #OptOutside campaign on social media.

Why did REI do it? CEO Jerry Stritzke explained that REI has been dedicated to living life outdoors, and Black Friday is a good time to remember that.

“While the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently,” Stritzke said in his #OptOutside announcement. “We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand and so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday season, over spending it in the aisles.”

Customers and supporters were encouraged to get outside, avoid shopping, and document their adventures using the #OptOutside hashtag. The #OptOutside website featured a zip code based search offering nearby outdoor activities.

What #OptOutside Did for REI

Even before Black Friday hit, #OptOutside reached movement status with nearly one million endorsements on social media and support from more than 150 other organizations including parks, retailers, and private companies. On Black Friday, REI counted 1,408,117 participants in #OptOutside. It was an incredible show of support from customers, organizations, even competitors. For participation alone, REI can count #OptOutside as a win.

The media feedback for #OptOutside has been almost exclusively positive, with some outlets considering whether other retailers should make a similar move.

REI has seen excellent short term results from its #OptOutside campaign. They have struck a chord with both dedicated customers and potential new ones, and that’s a good move for driving future sales, reputation, and customer loyalty.

Thanks to the #OptOutside campaign, REI’s online traffic went up on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. REI’s site saw a 10% boost on Thanksgiving and a 26% one on Black Friday.

Why #OptOutside Was a Smart Reputation Move for REI

Let’s face it: it’s rare to find a person who genuinely enjoys Black Friday shopping. In fact, 79% of holiday shoppers say they don’t enjoy it, and 63% are cynical about their savings, not believing that the best discounts can be found on Black Friday. Rather, they find Black Friday to be stressful and dangerous.

With this disdain for Black Friday in mind, it’s not hard to understand why REI’s decision to get outside instead of hitting the mall resonated with so many people. REI’s customers in particular are in a set that appreciates the value of recreation over chasing hype and sales.

REI’s #OptOutside campaign demonstrated the retailer’s values, and it spoke to the values of their customers. It was a bold move, as Black Friday is a top 10 sales day for the company, but one that clearly paid off.

Closing on Black Friday is unusual for a major retailer, but it is not completely surprising from REI, a company with a reputation for treating its workers well. Since the list began in 1998, REI has been named one of Fortune‘s 100 Best Companies to Work For. Giving Black Friday as a paid holiday only further grew the goodwill among REI employees, as it allowed them to spend the day with their families outside, or however else they wanted to. It also sends a message to potential job applicants and top talent that REI may be a great place for them to work.

But perhaps most importantly, REI’s #OptOutside campaign allowed the company to gain viral marketing that speaks to its customers. A major retailer that closes on Black Friday is a strong talking point, and plenty of people talked about REI — almost completely positive.

By engaging in differentiation that is also aligned with company values, REI was able to reinforce its brand and generate a positive consumer response. REI enjoyed excellent brand awareness from the initial announcement to the deployment of #OptOutside on Black Friday. This is marketing that will pay off for months, possibly years, as REI will undoubtedly resurrect #OptOutside again next year.

Would #OptOutside Work for Other Retailers?

We’ve seen plenty of retailers refuse to open their doors on Thanksgiving this year, often garnering support from customers who have grown weary of the madness that is shopping on Thanksgiving, but no other major retailer has gone as far as REI and shuttered their doors on Black Friday. It is one of the biggest sales days of the year, after all.

But now that online shopping is approaching the same level as brick and mortar sales, we’re increasingly seeing sales bleed from Friday into the entire week following Thanksgiving. This trend has allowed REI and other retailers who opted out of major potential sales days to make up Thursday’s and Friday’s sales on Saturday, Sunday, Cyber Monday, and beyond.

Further, making a bold statement by refusing to participate in the frenzy of post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping has clearly resonated with REI’s core customers and beyond. This opportunity is not unique to REI, though.

We see indications that a similar campaign would be a smart move for some organizations. Consumers respond positively when companies get real about their values during the holiday season, shunning the excessive demands of the shopping season in favor of family, or in REI’s case, enjoyment of the outdoors.

In 2013, we saw resounding support for Liberty Bottleworks as they stood behind their commitment to give their customer service team weekends off, even during the holidays. In Liberty’s situation, the credo of “family first, product second struck a chord, and the company was slammed with orders following a viral online post from the COO defending employees.

While REI is the only major retailer to opt out of Black Friday, several major retailers refused to open on Thanksgiving, receiving primarily positive feedback and responses from consumers. In fact, in an analysis by SimilarWeb we see that retailers who closed their stores on Thanksgiving had better online traffic performance than their leading competitors. They also performed better for visits. Among these retailers with increased online traffic are GameStop, Staples, PetSmart, Nordstrom, and Pier 1 Imports.

For REI, it’s clear that #OptOutside has been worth it. By developing this campaign, they’ve been able to generate goodwill and bolster their reputation as a people first company, which we’re betting will pay off bigger in the long term than a single day of blockbuster sales. We’d like to see other companies follow with similar reputation boosting campaigns.