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REI Cancels Black Friday. Great PR Follows.

rei-black-friday-lockdownHow 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.

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