The New Black Friday

4 min read

REI just announced that they will be closing their stores on Black Friday, encouraging employees and shoppers alike to instead #OptOutside by spending the day enjoying the great outdoors. So is it a classy move, or a move for the upper class?

The Reaction
The presence of a corporate hashtag is possibly a sign that this decision isn’t strictly an act of loving kindness on the part of REI, but overall? The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, to say the least. That’s because REI’s decision didn’t happen in a vacuum—over the last several years, article after article has been published about a phenomenon dubbed “Black Friday Creep.” In an effort to compete with one another, businesses have redefined what actually constitutes a Black Friday sale by starting the discounts earlier and earlier, to the point that many stores actually began their sales last year on Thanksgiving Day.

The hypocrisy of compulsive shopping on the national day of gratitude has not been lost on American consumers. But none of that changed the fact that last year some sixty-six percent of people surveyed planned to shop Black Friday sales—up 11 percent from the year before.

So then, what gives? How did REI make the call?

Ethical Affluence
Okay, there’s a lot at play here, and you could probably write a few thousand words about it. But I’m going to try and give you the digest version.

First things first—it’s important to keep in mind here some demographic information. The typical REI shopper has historically been “upper income, educated, concerned about the environment.” To put a finer point on it, they are, as former CEO Sally Jewell put it, “affluent [and] well-educated.”

Why does this matter? Because affluence tends to be associated with the freedom to make ethics a part of your shopping decisions. And if you have the means to purchase an REI membership in order to shop for recreational outdoor equipment, you’re likely in a very different financial position from the typical Wal-Mart shopper.

But… Ethics? Really?
Does it seem like a stretch to make Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day shopping an ethical issue? I’d be lying if I said it was on par with, say, Foxconn. But make no mistake—the question is being framed as an ethical one. Last year, asked readers whether it was “wrong” for stores to stay open on Thanksgiving.

And how is REI framing it?

“The thing that is powerful to me is this clearly is not a financially self-serving act,” [said REI President and CEO Jerry Stritzke]. “It’s an act where we’re really making a very clear statement about a set of values.”

In other words—this isn’t just a business move that’s driven by numbers. This is a moral decision. And the framing of it as such is at least part of what has electrified REI’s consumer base.

Black Friday Endures
If you’re thinking that this may be the end of Black Friday or Thanksgiving Day shopping as we know it, you’re wrong. It’s surely no coincidence that one of the fastest growing demographics for Black Friday sales is also one of the most currently strapped for cash.

I’m talking, of course, about Millennials. Being young and broke around the holidays is never much fun, and Millennial shoppers have proven their willingness to brave the cold (and each other) year after year in pursuit of a good deal, ethics be damned. While the social media reaction to REI’s announcement has been fast and furious (on Facebook, video of REI’s CEO speaking to CBS news was approaching 5,000 shares as of this writing), when it comes to actual consumer behavior we’re not likely to see very much change.

A cheap flat-screen is a cheap flat-screen, man.

And Great PR is Great PR
Obviously REI is not going to be financially broken by this decision, but they’ve touched a nerve with an awful lot of people. The story is trending across social media, and it received almost immediate attention from most major news outlets.

And even if Millennials are eager to get a great deal at a Black Friday sale, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that nobody enjoys the humiliation of being herded like cattle for the privilege of buying a slightly less expensive television from a billion-dollar corporation. Participation in a lousy system does not necessarily mean approval—or enjoyment.

From a public relations standpoint, whatever financial loss REI might suffer from the lack of Black Friday sales has already been made up through earned media. And maybe that’s the lesson here—if it’s within your power to give consumers what they really want, why would you #OptOut from doing so?