Late on Monday, outdoors and apparel retailer REI surprised employees and shoppers by announcing it would be closed on Black Friday, which is traditionally one of the biggest days of the year for sales. REI won’t be processing orders on Black Friday at its website either. “Instead of reporting to work, we’re paying our employees to do what we love most—be outside,” a message sent to REI customers (or rather, members, as REI is a co-op) explained. “While the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we hope to see you in the great outdoors.”
On the one hand, the move seems incredibly bold and selfless. “Any retailer that hears this will be startled by the idea,” REI President and CEO Jerry Stritzke said to USA Today. As he told CBS News on Tuesday morning, the idea is all about being “authentic” to its brand. “For us, encouraging people to get outside was maybe one of the most authentic things we could do,” Stritzke said. “It’s important for brands to always to be true to who they are.”
Cynics, on the other hand, will take note that it’s pretty convenient for a retailer that relies on people wanting to enjoy the outdoors to take an anti-consumerism stance that just so happens to encourage people to go enjoy the outdoors. What’s more, the OptOutside site, created to supposedly help people find ways to enjoy the outdoors, seems to be focused on spreading the word about REI’s movement rather than providing good, practical information for outdoor enthusiasts. The map showing outdoor opportunities is hardly comprehensive—only three hiking trails are listed for all of Vermont, and only three options for skiing show up for the entire U.S.
Clearly, REI and its CEO doing the media circuit hope to get some good publicity out of the unconventional decision to be closed on Black Friday, a.k.a. the “Super Bowl of Shopping.” And yet, is there anything wrong with that? After all, it’s possible to do the “right thing” and do what’s in your own best financial interests in the same breath, all while patting yourself on the back in extremely public fashion.
In recent years, the battle over doing the “right thing” has been focused on Thanksgiving rather than Black Friday, with more retailers open on Turkey Day and stores being shamed and boycotted for hosting sales and encouraging people to shop during the holiday traditionally reserved for family time. Still, many of the same issues—shopping vs. family time, more stuff vs. simple pleasures, consumerism vs. being thankful for what you have—are raised regardless of which day we’re talking about.
And yes, it’s fair to applaud retailers’ decisions to stay closed on Thanksgiving while simultaneously questioning their motivations. After being open the previous two Thanksgivings, Staples will stay closed on the holiday this year. That’s nice for Staples employees and their families, but surely some of the decision was based on the fact that few shoppers are clamoring for deals on reams of paper and office desks on Black Friday. Likewise, it would seem to be pretty easy for retailers like Home Depot and Lowes and warehouse clubs such as Costco and BJ’s to remain closed on Thanksgiving because they wouldn’t be big sales days even if they were open. That hasn’t stopped them from posting self-congratulatory messages about staying closed on the holiday, and reminding shoppers they’ll be open bright and early on Black Friday.
A couple weeks ago, a press release announced, “GameStop Takes a Stand!” concerning its “core values” and “doing the right thing to disrupt the emerging trend in the retail industry of taking away holidays from customers and associates.” If you didn’t know any better, you might think the video game retailer was launching a major about-face in policy with the decision to keep doors closed on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, it’s never been open on Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, it wants to get some props for keeping the holiday sacred, and compared to the retailer competitors who increasingly view Thanksgiving as just another day to draw in the crowds and drum up sales, GameStop indeed deserves a little credit.
In most cases, the decision to open or close on Thanksgiving (or Black Friday) is based on business strategy in addition to doing the “right thing.” By staying closed on Thanksgiving, stores will naturally endear themselves to shoppers who think it’s awful that any stores are open that day. By staying closed on Black Friday and encouraging folks to go hiking, skiing, or biking, REI will naturally endear itself (more) to people who love the outdoors—and who probably weren’t going to be elbowing the crowds in the mall on Black Friday anyway.
Above all, there’s something seriously disingenuous about presenting the decision to close as purely a matter of ethics and doing right by employees when money and brand marketing factor in heavily as well. Case in point: A PR representative for a mattress retailer reached out to me recently, hoping to get the store some publicity because it was not going to open on Thanksgiving. As if this was a brave, humanitarian move. Who buys a mattress on Thanksgiving?