Recreational Equipment, Inc., which started as small Seattle co-op, now boasts 145 stores in 35 states with flagship locations so expansive customers don’t even have to enter the outdoors to test out the company’s equipment. Here are a few things you might not have known about the company.
1. THE FOUNDERS STARTED THE COMPANY TO SELL QUALITY CLIMBING EQUIPMENT TO THEIR FRIENDS.
Seattle residents Lloyd and Mary Anderson loved spending time in the mountains. Unfortunately, much of the mountaineering equipment they found in the U.S. was flimsy—which could put outdoorsmen in precarious, and even fatal, situations. But when Lloyd tried to purchase ice axes from the local European retailers, they refused because he didn’t buy enough volume. They figured their mountain-going colleagues could also use better (and safer) equipment, so the Andersons established a co-op in 1938 so that they and their friends could pool resources and get better deals on tough, quality gear.
2. THE COMPANY IS STILL RUN AS A PSEUDO-CO-OP.
For a one-time $20 fee, customers can join the more than 6 million customers who are members of REI. Each year, members are typically given 10 percent back of the amount they purchased in eligible items at the store the previous year. But membership doesn’t just pay off for the customers: About 80 percent of REI’s sales each year are purchases made by those who are part of the club. But as REI has gotten bigger and bigger, many people now view it as a conventional retail outlet rather than a true co-op, with fewer than a percent of members voting in the 2015 board election.
3. FOR THE FIRST SIX YEARS OF ITS EXISTENCE, REI DIDN'T HAVE A RETAIL LOCATION.
After the Andersons founded REI, creating a large chain of retail stores was not high on the list of priorities—and until public demand necessitated a larger operation, the company was run out of the couple’s house. In 1939, REI opened its first retail location by displaying its equipment on three shelves in a Seattle gas station.
4. REI’S FIRST GENERAL MANAGER WAS ALSO THE FIRST AMERICAN TO REACH THE SUMMIT OF MOUNT EVEREST.
Jim Whittaker grew up climbing the peaks around Seattle and joined REI in 1955 as one of the company’s first full-time employees. He left the offices of REI in 1963 when he was summoned to be part of a 19-person expedition with its sights set on the highest point in the world. Whittaker (along with his sherpa, Nawang Gombu Sherpa) was the tenth man ever to reach the summit of Everest and the first American to do so; he spent 20 minutes enjoying the view and catching his breath before heading back down.
5. WHITTAKER RETURNED AS THE COMPANY’S PRESIDENT ALMOST EIGHT YEARS AFTER HIS CLIMBING MISSION.
Under Whittaker's leadership, REI opened its first store outside Seattle in Berkeley, California in 1975. The store continued to expand across the region as well as in its offerings, including manufacturing its own clothing when conventional suppliers weren’t fast enough. Whittaker left the company in 1979 after years of philosophical battles with REI’s board of directors. He explained in his autobiography that, after successfully scaling K2 as REI’s CEO, the board didn't congratulate him—they demanded to know how much it cost the company ($50,000 in equipment, but he estimated it generated $1.5 million in free publicity in National Geographic alone). None of the board members were climbers, and, Whittaker wrote, "I couldn’t quite understand [how] the board of perhaps the nation’s leading mountaineering and outdoor equipment retailer could fail to grasp the direct and indirect benefits of having the first successful American ascent of the second-highest mountain in the world be led by their very own CEO."
6. THE COMPANY GIVES AWAY THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF EQUIPMENT TO ITS EMPLOYEES EVERY YEAR.
Employees of REI are encouraged to clock out every once in a while and spend some quality time in the outdoors. Individuals or groups who are looking to try something new—such as climbing Mount Rainer or hiking the Appalachian Trail—can submit challenge grants [PDF] and, if approved, are given free equipment to complete the journey. In 2002, REI gave away approximately $30,000 worth of gear and clothing to its employees.
7. EACH YEAR, SEVERAL LOCATIONS HOLD A “TWINKIE ROAST” IN ANTICIPATION OF THE WINTER SPORTS SEASON.
According to REI Spokane's Facebook page, "REI legend has it that roasted Twinkies bring the snow." The quirky tradition, which began at the Berkeley location in the 1970s, is now held at its headquarters, two distribution centers, and many stores. The Denver event has been particularly lucky over the years: In 2006, a blizzard followed the store’s roast (where they burned a Twinkie Sphinx), and in 2007, snow fell in the mountains 59 of the next 62 days after REI employees enjoyed their toasty Twinkies.
8. THE COMPANY HAS VOWED TO BECOME CLIMATE NEUTRAL BY 2020.
REI is focusing on using solar technology, purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates, and switching to more energy efficient lighting and cooling systems to accomplish this goal. Currently, 26 locations are equipped with solar panels, including an almost energy-neutral location in Tustin, California. REI is also a founding member of the Conservation Alliance, along with Kelty, Patagonia, and The North Face, which donates to grassroots conservation groups across the country.
9. REI’S RETURN POLICY USED TO BE SO LAX THE STORE WAS KNOWN IN SOME CIRCLES AS “RETURN EVERYTHING, INC.”
Until 2013, the company employed a well-known no-questions-asked return policy for any merchandise purchased in its store for the lifetime of the product. The store changed the policy to only apply to the first year after purchase after one too many customers took to the internet to brag about returning a snowsuit to REI after using it to climb Mount Rainier or returning a backpack for a newer model 30 years after the original was purchased.
10. THERE USED TO BE AN REI LOCATION IN JAPAN.
The company’s first and only international location was opened in Tokyo in April 2000 after more than 80,000 people became catalog customers in the 1990s. However, Japanese interest in outdoor gear had waned since then, and the store was closed just over a year later.
11. IN 2015, REI REFUSED TO OPEN FOR BLACK FRIDAY AND INSTEAD GAVE ITS EMPLOYEES A PAID DAY OF VACATION.
While not required, the company encouraged its 12,000 employees to “go outside and do something.” All 143 retail locations, its distribution locations, and headquarters were closed on the historically shopping-driven holiday. Even the website was on a bit of a vacation: It was changed to give information about getting outside and explained that any orders made that day weren’t processed. But the employees had more work to do when they got back: Visits to REI’s website rose 26 percent on Black Friday, and the stunt helped REI post record revenue and membership increases for the year.