REI, which has over 140 stores, 11,000 employees and $2 billion in annual sales, created headlines by announcing that it will close its stores on Black Friday. In a letter posted to a campaign microsite, Jerry Stritzke, the company’s CEO, explained:

For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.

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. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.

All REI stores will literally go black on Black Friday and the retailer will pay its employees to stay home, or go outside.

Marketing the mission

REI’s stores will not be open for business on Black Friday, but the company, by rallying its customers to turn their backs on Black Friday and instead “opt outside,” is clearly hoping for a marketing victory this holiday season.

In recent years, retailers have become more and more aggressive as they seek to ensure strong holiday sales. The result: the holiday shopping season is beginning earlier and earlier and ending later and later. Case in point: for many retailers, Black Friday actually begins on Thanksgiving, or Gray Thursday as it is now referred to in the world of retail.

REI, which is organized as a consumer cooperative and serves those who live a healthy, outdoor lifestyle, is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the growing distaste many consumers have for the holiday shopping craze, and to do so in a way that is consistent with and reinforces its brand mission. So what it loses in sales it might make up in brand goodwill.

Online confidence

The extended holiday shopping season is likely one of the reasons REI felt comfortable closing its stores on Black Friday. While it’s still the most important day for many retailers, there are other days that count too, so it’s conceivable that a retailer could sit Black Friday out and still have the ability to produce strong holiday sales. 

Of course, it’s important to recognize that REI really isn’t opting out of Black Friday. While it intends to encourage shoppers who visit to enjoy the outdoors on Black Friday, its website will still be open for business. So in some sense, REI’s decision to close its physical stores on the most prominent day of the holiday shopping season is more a vote of confidence in online retail than it is an indictment of Black Friday.

Will other retailers follow suit?

While it’s unlikely that other retailers will follow in REI’s dramatic footsteps, the changing nature of the holiday shopping season will likely result in more retailers rethinking their approaches to the most wonderful time of the year. Other key days, like Cyber Monday and Green Monday, are growing in prominence and Gray Thursday has added another wrinkle to the mix. In short, Black Friday is evolving and it’s possible that it will become less important in the future.

For retailers looking not only to drive foot traffic and sales but keep costs under control, deliver quality customer experiences and maintain healthy margins, out-of-the-box strategies could go a long way. REI’s bold decision to shutter its stores on Black Friday is probably too out-of-the-box for most retailers, but it could be a harbinger of things to come.