how to win the game by changing the rules

When Seattle based outdoor recreation retailer REI announced they were giving employees a paid day off, and closing their stores on Black Friday, my immediate reaction was how BOLD, and how BRILLIANT!!

Even before their #optoutside campaign went viral. Even before their decision whipped media outlets into a frenzy. Even before I had a chance to read even one of the many articles that were subsequently published analyzing the what’s and whys of REI’s decision to abandon one of the most profitable retail sales days of the year, I knew that REI was doing something I respect and value very much…

They were winning the game by changing the rules!

If winning in retail is determined solely by profitability, then the numbers aren’t yet in to determine whether REI will take an overall hit, or get a longer term financial bump by their decision to close. My guess is that it will be the latter, however, their decision was a win for the company in more ways than just the bottom line and here’s why.

In every competitive endeavour, there is an underlying basic assumption that you win by doing the same thing as your competitors, just better. In sports you run faster, jump higher, score more, and, in retail it has become about opening earlier, closing later, and charging less and less in order to compete.

Then, every once in a while, someone competes in a different way – they develop a new way to land the high jump, a new underwater kick, or new materials that allow equipment improvements which provide competitive advantage. In the most basic of terms, I respect REI’s decision to say, “Hey we’re not going to try to compete by doing the same thing as everyone else, just better. In fact, we’re going to compete by not competing at all!” Balls. Disruption. I like it!

Next year, other retailers might follow suit, or they won’t, but REI won this year by being the first major retailer to have the boldness to go against the competition, against conventional logic, and make a stir and a statement while they were at it. The decision worked for REI because it was perceived as authentic and not contrived. It was in keeping with their message and culture, a kind gesture towards its employees for sure, but also an effective reinforcement of their collaborative brand, and a way to grow both employee and customer loyalty, while getting some amazing positive press while they were at it.

I tip my hat to REI for their decision to close their doors on Black Friday this year, and challenge us all to seize more opportunities to make bold decisions in 2016!