The first customers to enter the new REI store at Easton Gateway today are expected to be greeted by applause from REI employees. Experts said the small touch gives insight into why the Seattle-based outdoors retailer is expected to succeed even though it is entering an increasingly competitive market for outdoors gear in central Ohio.
The first customers to enter the new REI store at Easton Gateway today are expected to be greeted by applause from REI employees.
Experts said the small touch gives insight into why the Seattle-based outdoors retailer is expected to succeed even though it is entering an increasingly competitive market for outdoors gear in central Ohio.
"REI is a fantastic example of how retailers can build consumer engagement and customer loyalty," said Marcie Merriman, executive director of retail strategy, consumer engagement and brand innovation at Ernst & Young.
"REI developed a cult following long ago by offering experiences and services that extend the four walls of the store, enlisting associates that live and breathe the categories in which they work, and by being an early pioneer of online retailing."
Founded by a group of 23 mountain-climbing buddies in 1938, REI now has 135 stores in 33 states, with 2013 revenue of $2.03 billion.
Although anyone can shop at REI - or Recreational Equipment Inc. - it is the nation's largest consumer cooperative with about 5.1 million members around the nation.
Members pay a one-time fee of $20 to join and then receive a share of REI's profits through an annual member rebate, typically 10 percent of eligible purchases during the year. Members also receive discounts on gear and rentals, with the discounts varying by store but often including camping equipment.
"It's not just a retailer that sells products," said retail analyst Chris Boring, principal at Boulevard Strategies. "REI is a cooperative and has an emphasis on community and outdoor stewardship, and they also offer all sorts of services" such as travel adventures, clubs and hikes.
That kind of service sits well with customers like Paul Bower of Dublin, a longtime REI member who stopped by the new Easton Gateway store this week for a preview of its offerings.
"I've been waiting 30 years for REI to come to Columbus," Bower said.
Store manager Eric Piper has become accustomed to such enthusiasm since coming to Columbus from Arizona a few months ago.
"We don't really have customers," Piper said. "We have fans."
Piper recently ran into one such fan, who reported that he had been out hiking when his camp stove broke. REI shipped a new stove to the next stop on the trail. Upon hearing that Piper was helping to open an REI store in Columbus, the man simply said, "Thank God."
The new REI store at Easton Gateway is the first of two planned for central Ohio. The other will open in the fall in the Dublin area on W. Dublin-Granville Road near Sawmill Road.
Opening two stores in rapid succession is unusual for REI - "We tend to be cautious," Piper said - but plans changed after the company opened its first store in Ohio in October in Cincinnati. That was such "a rampant success, we decided to go ahead," he said.
Central Ohio also has 5,700 REI members, one of the bigger member bases without a store. In addition, REI CEO Jerry Stritzke once held a number of top posts at Limited Brands - now L Brands - in Columbus, including a stint as chief operating officer of Victoria's Secret. He's been in the top job at REI for eight months after more than five years as the No. 2 executive at Coach.
The 23,400-square-foot building at Easton, similar in size to a typical DSW or Barnes & Noble store, includes a bike-repair shop and a community space for outdoor-related classes and events.
The outdoor experience begins at the front door, with ice axes serving as door pulls. Strolling through the store wearing one of REI's iconic green vests, Piper pointed to merchandise that the company believes will sell well in central Ohio.
"Bikes, they're going to do well in Columbus," he said. "There's a pretty robust climbing community here, too. Paddling, we think we're going to hit it out of the park there, too."
Standing near the outdoor electronics section, Piper looked around.
"One of the things I like about REI is that we cater to everyone, from beginners all the way up to the highest level," he said. "We have bikes for everyone, for instance, all the way up to full-carbon mountain bikes."
The biggest difference between REI and other outdoor retailers is that REI doesn't carry guns, ammunition, bows, arrows, fishing rods - only "nonlethal" merchandise, Boring said.
While that may have seemed like a disadvantage last year, when many outdoors stores had a huge boost in gun and ammo sales, "that's gone down this year," Boring said. "Those companies that invested those resources in guns and ammo, it was short-term thinking.
"That's another really important point about REI: The fact that they are a cooperative, that they are owned by members, means they don't have to answer to Wall Street," Boring said. "That means that they can take time to make moves that make long-term sense."
The long-term moves very much include community involvement. Before REI even finished building its Easton Gateway store, it began working with local nonprofit organizations such as Metro Park-Central Ohio Park System, Central Ohio Mountain Biking Organization and Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed to help maintain outdoor places in central Ohio.
At the store, there are a variety of classes to keep the public informed about a wide array of outdoors topics, such as an introduction-to-GPS class, a camp cooking class and a "zombie preparedness class."
"It used to be called 'disaster preparedness class' and no one showed up," Piper said. "But when we changed the name, it became one of our most popular classes."