Our Love Affair with REI

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When we first began dipping our toe into the outdoor lifestyle, REI was our mothership.

We read Backpacker Magazine’s annual Gear Review edition and dutifully marched off to REI to purchase the basics: hiking boots, sleeping bag, tent, cooking set, etc.  All the latest and greatest.  We love to buy the best, and make it last.  REI was full of potential adventures around every corner.  REI

We loved their return policy, and it encouraged us to be impulsive with our purchases.  Interesting new shoes that you aren’t sure if you’ll like or use?  Go ahead and buy them, if at any point they don’t meet your satisfaction you can bring them back to REI, busted up, used, unused, with or without receipt, completely in need of washing, you name the condition they will take it back without an attitude.  It was amazing.  The first time that I took something back I was scared.  I thought they’d fight me on it, give me an attitude, but no; they cheerfully took my product back and gave me cash.  

Even better are the infamous REI Garage Sales, offering returned items at a steep discount, though at ‘final sale’ terms.  Reading the tags of Garage Sale items always make for great entertainment.  A tent returned because it wasn’t “cute enough” or a pair of well-worn boots on their last legs returned due to “reduced traction”.  Garage Sales provide the opportunity for deals, and great laughs.

As dutiful co-op members we were excited to receive our first REI dividend check, which was quite an eye opener.  While excited for our generous “free money” to spend, it was quite shocking to realize exactly how large a percentage of our take-home pay was going to REI.  We resolved to dial back the REI spending, and aim for sale items and Garage Sale purchases in lieu of whatever peaked our interest at the moment.

As our interest in outdoor activities grew, we began finding that the more niche products we were seeking were not carried at REI.  As an example, when we searched for a tent with an exoskeleton design, at the time, not one tent at REI fit the bill.  We began to realize that REI was no longer the defacto choice, and we began seeking other retailers.  Though, that famous no-restriction return policy always kept us coming back.  We were often willing to pay full retail at REI, knowing no matter what, if an item doesn’t work out we could bring it back.

tahoe tent camping

Then, REI made the decision that changed the game plan: they amended their return policy.  Restricting returns to items purchased within the past year only.  While this sounds reasonable, more than anything it spoke to the fact the REI was growing and now being marketed to the ‘everyman’ in lieu of the ‘outdoorman’.  When you aim to please the masses, the niche market often gets left behind.

Almost anyone who spends time outdoors can come up with an example of an item that failed after a year of use, that could justifiably be returned under REI’s former policy.

The new policy also came along with a whole new attitude from the return counter at REI.  While I haven’t experienced this myself, I’ve been witness to other customers being talked down to, belittled  and denied a return.  Of course, I made a mental note, and now know that should I need to return a purchase at REI I will need to come ready for a battle.

The REI return policy is still amazing for an outdoor retail store.  While claiming to be a co-op, in function they operate much more like a typical corporate box store and the shopping experience reflects that for good and bad.  I can walk into any REI and try on a dozen different hiking pants from various manufacturers, stocked in various colors and sizes.  Internet or local retailers aren’t able to provide that experience.  

To this day I still check REI when looking for new gear, though now weigh the price and return options against local and internet retailers.  My recent winter hiking boots came from REI, and I was willing to pay full price, knowing I could try them on in-store and return next year should they not meet my satisfaction this winter.  

As REI has grown to become a much larger company, and we’ve grown in our outdoor abilities, REI is no longer our retail mothership though does have a soft spot in our hearts as the store that started us on our adventures.