For a moment, things looked like they were going so well for REI.
The outdoors and fitness-focused retailer made headlines several weeks ago when it announced that it would not be opening any of its 143 stores for Black Friday. Instead, CEO Jerry Stritzke implored employees to take their paid day of vacation and join shoppers for a day of outdoor adventures instead of a day of frenetic shopping under fluorescent lights.
“We’re a different kind of company — and 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 a statement. “We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.”
The response was positive, and REI’s decision to step back from Black Friday at a time when many shoppers have already transitioned to a mostly online approach to the holiday shopping season meshed with a greater collective cooling off toward the doorbuster events that once made Black Friday famous. It seemed as if REI was setting itself up for an end of the year filled with nothing but goodwill from its consumers and high post-Black Friday sales because of it.
However, pride comes before the fall, so they say, and though REI was riding high off of its “OptOutside” campaign, somebody on REI’s executive board decided to double down and put Stritzke up for an “AMA” on Reddit – an informal question-and-answer style interview session on the popular community-driven site. While REI and Stritzke might have been expecting a brand-positive discussion focused on outdoors products and lifestyles and continuing the goodwill started by its decision to close on Black Friday, Reddit users quickly showed the retailer that it’s possible to overplay your hand when it comes to publicity.
Instead of a discussion on camping equipment and moisture-wicking survival jackets, current and former REI employees instead turned the talk toward their negative experiences working at many of REI’s stores. Some complained to Stritzke of being paid unlivable wages despite working long hours and being pushed by managers to reach unreasonable membership subscription quotas, while others reported having their hours slashed under part-time status as they approached minimum benchmarks that would make them eligible for health care and other benefits.
In short: It was a public relations disaster.
“We will have a collective conversation about this issue,” Stritzke said in a statement provided to Quartz. “This will include conversations in our stores. If I’m not happy with what we find, we’ll make a change.
“Bottom line, though, an open and transparent conversation is something CEOs should not be afraid of. I, for one, welcome it.”
Open and transparent conversations are all well and good, but when they come at the expense of a brand’s public image like REI’s Reddit experiment has, CEOs like Stritzke may not be so eager to gamble their hard-won positive PR.
However, the very ability to shield one’s brand from negative feedback may become rarer as customers find new ways to voice their thoughts through social media. Forbes explained that REI’s Reddit snafu and Starbucks’ ongoing fiasco over the design of its holiday coffee cups showcases how customers are becoming less skittish about letting brands know when the actions of certain marketing campaigns don’t align with the values that they hold dear.
In a sense, this is the same double-edged sword that retailer marketing has wielded for decades, just amplified tenfold by the power of social media. Get it right and holiday riches are soon to follow. Get it wrong and join REI with nothing but coal in its stocking.