This Black Friday, unlike every other store across the United States, the outdoor store REI will close all of its 143 stores. Employees will be paid to head outside and walk off the effects of Thanksgiving overeating.
Shutting your doors on the busiest retail day of the year may seem like business suicide, but REI doesn’t answer to shareholders. The company is a cooperative and is responsible only to its members, who pay $20 for a lifetime membership. Currently there are around 5.5 million members. Apart from discounts, the main benefit of membership is a 10% dividend on goods bought, paid annually. Because the members are invested in the REI sticking around and doing what it does, instead of on a relentless drive for shareholder profit, it’s unlikely they’ll complain.
“We’re a different kind of company,” says REI CEO Jerry Stritzke in a statement, “and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently.”
To promote the rest day, REI has turned to hashtags, launching #OptOutside. Obviously, potential REI customers will have no choice but to join in, as the stores won’t be open. To our modern, cynical eyes, this may look like little more than a publicity grab, but giving up one of its top ten sales days of the year sends a strong signal.
“The thing that is powerful to me is this clearly is not a financially self-serving act,” Stritzke told USA Today. “It’s an act where we’re really making a very clear statement about a set of values.” The REI web store will not process any orders on Black Friday. Any orders you make will be taken care of the following day.
If the goal is to provoke anti-consumerism, it’s working. Joe’s Bike Shop in Baltimore has decided to join the #OptOutside campaign. The improbably-named owner, Joe Traill, is organizing a mountain bike ride at a local reservoir for the day instead.
It’s unlikely that a company like Walmart will do anything but maximize profit on future Black Fridays, but smaller companies like Patagonia might join in the anti-consumerist arms race. Patagonia is a benefit corporation, which has social and environmental responsibilities baked into its mandate, alongside the usual shareholder obligations. The company gives 1% of its sales (or 10% of profit) to environmental groups. And it’s made several PR splashes with its campaigns that actually advise consumers to buy fewer things.
Neither Patagonia nor REI would get away with this sort of thing if they were regular publicly traded companies, so while Stritzke’s decision to close his stores on the busiest retail day of the U.S. year is fantastic, it will never catch on where it counts. Not while profit remains the sole motive in most business.