Daring to be different can pay dividends. And yet, even at Thanksgiving — once the start of the holiday shopping season — some consumers can already feel a little shopped out. Black Friday, though still a retail event for the most committed, has blurred into something akin to “Grey November,” as retailers spend the better part of the last 21 days racing to be first over the Black Friday line by starting their sales and promotions earlier.
The defining trait this year seems to be: More is more. More discounts, more promotions, most in-store experiences — more.
But in an environment when the dominant mindset is go big or go home — particularly when it comes to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend — it should not be all that surprising that at least one retailer decided to take the road less traveled and go home.
Or, more in keeping with that Robert Frost poem, one retailer has opted to go outside.
Since 2015, outdoor clothing and gear company REI has been doggedly pursuing the #OptOutside campaign, which heartily encourages consumers to skip the mall, forsake the sales and instead opt to go outside. Take a hike, climb a mountain, go kayaking — REI’s website and Instagram are stuffed with full-color illustrations of all the wholesome, outdoorsy things customers could be doing this Black Friday instead of shopping for the holidays.
“Once again, REI is skipping the frenzy. We’re closing our doors and giving our employees a paid day off. We also created a new way for you to find outdoor inspiration — and inspire others too …”
Opt Outside is not a new innovation in anti-retail retail. In 2015, REI kicked off their annual protest against Black Friday excess and managed to take the social media world by storm with a very counterintuitive promotion for the holiday season. While everyone else was throwing up their doors (and in some cases even opening Thanksgiving night) to catch the deal-hunting shoppers, REI shrugged off the biggest retail day of the year and encouraged consumers everywhere to go hiking instead.
It was “an admirable stunt,” but REI made it clear that its suggestion that consumers skip the shopping rush was more than an idle way to easily snap up a lot of retweets. They began building content around the alternative shopping experience through expert tutorials and trail guides.
And this year, as alluded to above, REI is pushing the bounds of their program further with what the company is referring to as its first ever “experiential search engine.”
It’s a fancy-sounding title, but what REI has basically created is a hashtagged archive of pictures and videos for REIers and outdoor enthusiasts worldwide having scenic outdoor adventures. The content REI is showcasing is all user-generated and will be tricked out with not just images but also factual information of what and where exactly other participants are opting outside in their Black Friday protest.
Clicking on an image of a hiker will give you information about where they are hiking and how hard the trail is.
“We’ve been really blown away over the three years by what the impact and engagement with #OptOutside has been. It is not falsely humble to say our expectations for response were a heck of a lot more modest than what’s actually happened,” REI Chief Creative Officer Ben Steele noted in an interview. “Millions of people who have used the platform of #OptOutside to tell their stories and celebrate their moments in the outdoors. That hashtag, #OptOutside, has become a part of the parlance of the outdoors. It’s a way people share their passion. That’s a view that we can see, but I’m not sure people can see that view themselves.”
That was challenge, Steele noted — finding ways to expand the program and make it more relevant to consumers without being complex to operate on the one-day communal event for the REI outdoorsman (and woman) community.
“Why did we make this decision? Why did we take this action? It is about closing our doors, paying our employees and inviting the world to join us, but it’s really about enabling more people to get outdoors, in more ways, more often. What started as a moment has kind of become a movement. It’s about behavior change and giving people tools to do something different with their time. The experiential search engine idea is really about: If we’ve invested in helping people get out, enabling them to get out there, how can we connect those dots even more? Inspiring them with the stories of people living the life outdoors, enabling them with awesome trail content that gives them the functionality to get out there, augmenting that with classes and events and the best expert advice and connecting the co-op into one place and one experience,” Steele told Fast Company in an interview.