REI made headlines a few weeks ago when it announced that it would be closed on Black Friday, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year for brick-and-mortar stores, and encouraged everyone to go outside.
While that was widely regarded as a bold, positive move for the outdoor retailer, a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) chat this week with REI’s CEO Jerry Strizke had several people calling into question the company’s sales practices. The thread quickly spiraled into a series of complaints, with both former employees and customers weighing in.
As noted by Gizmodo, the thread started out innocently enough:
“Hi Reddit. I’m Jerry Strizke, CEO of REI. You might have heard about us recently when we announced that we would be closing all of our stores on Black Friday this year. We’re paying our 12,000 employees to take the day off and we’re encouraging them to opt out of the Black Friday madness and spend the day outdoors with loved ones…Ask me anything!”
When Strizke logged off, there were about “300 comments,” as he notes in a follow up. But the AMA hit a nerve — or a few thousand nerves — as Redditors took to the stream. More than 3,700 comments have been posted since, many of which include complaints from former employees that REI is not such a great place to work.
The most upvoted comment, from Redditor annonemp, questioned the heavy push on membership sales: “I am wondering why there is such an obsessive emphasis on membership sales? Why aren’t employees incentivised [sic] to sell memberships, but rather penalized for failing to do so?”
“With this in mind,” the former employee added. “I tried to strike a balance between providing exceptional service to pre-existing members and giving authentic membership pitches. Some days I would sell lots of memberships, some days I wouldn’t sell any, and most days I would sell a few.”
In short, according to the thread, the employee worked hard, learned the ins and outs of everything REI, cross-trained across every department, trained new employees, and received “top marks in my check-ins” — but was ultimately penalized with fewer hours of work, and not hired in a new city after the employee’s membership sales “stagnated.”
“I fully understand the need to hold employees to a high standard, but why is the approach so unbalanced?” the former employee continued. “How is it in the best interest of the co-op to focus so exclusively on a performance metric that has no direct benefit for customers who are already members?”
That question started, as they say, a shitstorm of comments.
From wartsnall1985: “Product knowledge, customer service skills, overall work ethic are worth ZERO if you are not selling x number of memberships per shift.”
From whatisyournamemike: “I was able to keep my job just paying for peoples memberships, didn’t have to sell anything, yet the raises and promotions kept coming in!”
It got kind of nasty from there, with even customers getting in on the thread.
From Gazorp: “As an REI customer, it’s incredibly irritating to be constantly pushed to buy a membership by every employee I encounter. A checkout employee laughed in my face yesterday when I told him I didn’t have a membership. Makes me not ever want a membership, and makes me not want to shop at REI.”
Strizke posted an update to Reddit directly addressing the original comment from annonemp. Here is an edited version of his lengthy response:
“I’m certainly concerned about your experience and to hear others express the same. Our members and customers are our first priority and providing them with knowledgeable insights is the most important thing we do. I believe that this expertise and a shared passion for the outdoors are our overwhelming strengths as an organization and am very proud of the men and women wearing green vests in our stores.
“I have to admit the emphasis on membership sales was a surprise to me when I joined the co-op two years ago. Given that I was new, I wanted to have a better understanding of the co-op structure and some of the whys behind our actions. There is no doubt that the co-op structure is focused on the concept of membership and there is long institutional memory reinforcing the idea that we should encourage as many people to join the co-op as possible – we believe in the mission and purpose of the co-op.
“Having said that, we may have lost sight of the bigger picture. The truth is that we should have been doing a better job sharing what makes the co-op special. We should have a ‘pull’ model (people want to join because they believe in our mission and they love the experience), not a ‘push’ model when it comes to the co-op. And the most important thing is that our employees in our stores know that their skill, deep outdoor knowledge and customer service are the things that matter above everything. To be clear, that is how our people should be measured.
“I feel like your story represents a measure of individual performance taken to an extreme and I am committed to understanding what happened. I appreciate you sharing your story and I assure you that we are looking into how we are using this measure. Good conversation.”
We’ve reached out to REI to see if there are any more updates.
Update: REI provided us the below comment via email from CEO Jerry Strizke:
“I enjoyed being on Reddit. It’s an incredibly passionate and engaged community. I value and encourage transparency from the people who work with me and the people whose lives we touch. We do a huge number of things at REI to engage with employees and drive transparency and so discussing things like what it means to be a membership organization are normal practice. That’s vital because our members are actually the owners of REI.
“About the Reddit thread specifically – this is a completely legitimate conversation (how we invite people to join the co-op and how we measure employee performance). It’s an issue we’re currently focused on and so I plan to dig into the question more deeply. We will have a collective conversation about this issue. 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.”