REI Cancels Black Friday. Great PR Follows.

How many retailers could tell its customers to take a hike – literally – and earn glowing PR? Of course, that’s exactly what happened when REI announced it would close on Black Friday while urging employees and customers to get out and enjoy the outdoors instead of shopping.

It was a trailblazing PR move that won our attention at first because it seems like a bold, even risky, step. REI acknowledges that the day after Thanksgiving is a top 10 sales day and it will almost certainly lose money by closing all stores and distribution centers and treating the day as a paid holiday for staff.

Another reason the decision was a PR winner is because it’s so perfectly on-brand for the Seattle-based retailer, which was founded by a group of mountaineers and espouses passion for outdoor recreation, environmental stewardship, and volunteerism.

But it wasn’t just the intrepid idea that catapulted REI to the top of our newsfeeds. Its execution was also skillful. Instead of simply announcing its policy, REI tied its decision to a call-for-action, well-hashtagged as #OptOutdoors – a nice play on words and an expression of corporate values that meshes beautifully with those of its core customers.
Of course, the great coverage and liberal social sharing also stem from a backlash against “Black Friday creep” – the tendency of retailers to hold doorbuster-type sales earlier and earlier on Friday, even cutting into Thanksgiving day itself. Although other retailers like Nordstrom and Costco have won PR points by being vocal about closing on Thanksgiving, REI is a pioneer when it comes to Black Friday, which is like a holy day in retail.

But REI also has an advantage over many traditional retail companies, and it was smart to leverage that difference. It’s about the company’s structure. As the large consumer retailer cooperative in the country, REI is free of the margin pressures and reporting requirements of public companies. It’s also a major e-tailer, so naturally there’s nothing to prevent fans from taking advantage of any great holiday deals on offer from the comfort of their laptop (or from under a tent on a ruggedized smartphone.)

It’s free to depart from convention, take the trail less traveled, and benefit from the result — a reputation boost as big as the great outdoors.

Can Thanksgiving Use Some Good PR?

Is it just me, or is Thanksgiving experiencing a kind of image problem that could use some shiny new PR? I’m not talking about the dinner – no one can tarnish turkey and trimmings. I mean the commercial encroachment that has turned it into “Thanks for giving up your holiday to shop obsessively!”

Some retailers have moved “Black Friday,” a fun shopping ritual of pre-dawn door busters and camaraderie to, essentially, “Black Thursday,” with employees leaving mid-meal to get to work and shoppers fleeing the table directly post-pumpkin pie. This is wrong on so many levels!

Other companies, like Nordstrom, have scored PR points by taking a stand against “black Thursday,” making the time right for a fresh Thanksgiving push. There are many elements already in place.

Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays where gifts are NOT expected, therefore PR messaging needs to stress the importance of severing it from consumerism and bringing it back to its core – giving and sharing with family, friends and strangers.

So, let’s talk turkey. Thanksgiving needs a spokesperson. If the Thanksgiving account were awarded to me, I would recommend creating a loveable, wholesome character, like a latter-day Santa or Easter Bunny, who can espouse the importance of sacred family time. The campaign elements could include an online contest component to crowd-source the character, give him or her a Facebook page and Twitter account, establish a mommy blogger advisory board, write a book with some “bold-faced’ names recounting beloved Thanksgiving meals, book a national media tour and voila, a campaign with legs.

I might also include a social media-driven petition drive aimed at taking back Thanksgiving.
Actually I would like to do that now, so please try to enjoy REAL Thanksgiving and put off shopping til at least sun-up Friday.

Shopping Holidays Are On A Roll

As an inveterate procrastinator and hater of crowds, I’ve always avoided Black Friday, except as a business angle for retail clients. And Cyber Monday, despite a similar usefulness, seemed a little like Grandparents Day…you know, an attempt by marketers to create a commercial holiday that never really, um, clicks. Maybe it’s the “cyber” label, which hasn’t been in the vernacular since the nineties. As a PR professional, I take it seriously, but as a consumer, not so much.

Things are different this year. For one, Black Friday’s morphed into a “cyber”-social occasion, with shoppers tweeting, posting, and blogging about the “doorbuster” deals they’ve found by scouring the Web. As Reuters reports, major retailers took advantage of the sharing to get more involved in social networking than in any previous year or season. Crowdsourcing deals is really hot.

And, surprisingly, so is Cyber Monday. When the National Retail Federation coined the term in 2005, it conjured images of frantic shoppers rushing to the desktops to power through their holiday lists. Yet, online sales that day were easily beaten by those later in December. Even last year, December 9 was the biggest online shopping day, racking up $887 million in sales. Cyber Monday’s, by contrast, were only $846 million, making it seem more virtual than real.

Not any more, apparently. What started as a marketing gimmick is turning into retail reality. Some 87 percent of online retailers are offering special promotions this Monday, according to the NRF. And as a recent New York Times piece suggests, it seems to be influencing shoppers.‘s annual Cyber Monday promotion drew only about 32 percent of its member retailers four years ago, but this year’s participation will reach nearly 75 percent. Hopefully, the shopping snowball effect will keep on rolling.

It’s all an attempt to get deal-hungry shoppers, and procrastinators like me, to get an earlier start to the holiday buying season. Yet, the shopping “holidays” might have a snowball effect of their own. I just heard about a new one being pushed by a mobile firm.  Mobile Tuesday will feature coupons from various retailers, including MacDonald’s, Finish Line, and RedTag, delivered to participants via cell phone.

But, here’s the problem. We shopping slackers like to push the limits of what’s possible. At this rate, I’ll be holding out for yet another faux holiday. I’m thinking some kind of “midnight madness” sale on December 23, the ultimate deadline for holiday gift deliveries. Last-Chance Wednesday, anyone? Keep an eye out, and let me know.