Black Friday has become an opportunity for consumers to end their Thanksgiving meal early and mass at the entrance of their nearest big box store, in anticipation of a morning light that will bring with it discounted TVs and marked-down skinny jeans. In the race to be the place for customers, stores are opening earlier, as well as competing on price and clever sales-related hashtags. But Black Friday has also become an opportunity for brands and retailers to show how decidedly non-consumerist they are.
This year, it’s outdoors retailing co-op REI, which will close its pickaxe-handled doors on November 27th, and encourage its employees (who will be paid for their time) and customers to venture into the great outdoors, and share photos of their experiences under the hashtag #OptOutside. The copy on the company’s page, optoutside.rei.com, asserts that, “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.”
Four years ago, Patagonia, an outerwear company whose popular puffer jackets are carried by REI, followed a similar non-consumption route, imploring customers in ads not to buy their jacket. As The New Yorker wrote:
The company’s anti-materialistic stance ramped up on Black Friday, 2011, with a memorable full-page advertisement in the Times that read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The ad’s text broke down the environmental costs of the company’s top-selling R2 fleece sweater and asked consumers to think twice before buying it or any other product. The attention the ad received helped to bump Patagonia’s 2012 sales significantly.
One could be skeptical about REI and Patagonia. They’re multibillion dollar brands, and a Google search for “REI Black Friday” yields dozens of laudatory articles that link back to the company’s website, praising the brand’s benevolence. The brands are also sufficiently different from other firms. Target and Walmart carry many of the same goods as one another, and at similar prices. REI has no serious competition in its space. No sporting goods store is as big, and Amazon can only do same-day delivery in several markets. Patagonia’s trademark puffer jackets are similarly insulated from competition. There is brand cachet to the signature Patagonia ridge line on the upper-left of the jacket, and it seems unlikely that a customer will be so easily swayed to buy a non-Patagonia jacket, or even no jacket at all. It’s hard to imagine Whole Foods – facing encroachment from Costco and Target and other food retailers – would run a similar sort of campaign, despite the fact that it targets the same demographic as REI and Patagonia.
However, REI and Patagonia do seem earnestly founded upon a belief in capitalist non-consumerism, mixed with a genuine love of the environment: fewer goods at higher prices and a focus on physical fitness and the outdoors. And each brand has a sort of corporate benefit program that dovetails with its mission. For Patagonia, its a partnership with iFixit, teaching jacket owners how to repair – rather than repurchase – goods. And REI has a dividend program, where it returns 10% of a customer’s purchase amount at the end of each year.
I do believe that both REI and Patagonia are sincere in their Black Friday resolutions. We live in an age of creative capitalism – whether it be Jack Dorsey’s repatriation of Twitter shares to employees, or a CEO taking a 93% pay cut and paying all his employees at least $70,000 – and companies are willing to experiment with their bottom lines, if it means making their modus operandi a little more clear, and perhaps gets them some positive publicity, as well. In a 2013 profile, NPR analyzed the extraordinarily lenient return policy of outdoors outfitter LL Bean. The article concluded by noting that “As a business practice, it’s expensive. As advertising, it’s cheap.” There’s no doubt that for REI and Patagonia it’s advertising, as well – whether by hashtag or by full-page ad – but it’s a message worth seriously considering. At the very least, it’s worth a blog post.