Thursday, October 06, 2005

REI's grand opening in Pittsburgh: something special?

Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) is opening its first store (map) in Pittsburgh this weekend. Grand opening celebrations will run from this Friday (Oct 7) thru Sunday (Oct 9) at 412 S. 27th Street on the South Side.

During the grand opening celebrations, REI is going out of their way to attract bicyclists--they've arranged for Bike Pittsburgh volunteers to provide valet parking services to bikers in exchange for a $10 donation from REI to Bike Pittsburgh for each bike parked.

I'm happy that REI is coming to Pittsburgh. When I lived in California, I became a member of REI and often shopped at their stores. Yes, I became a member of a store. REI is a consumer co-op, meaning that for a one-time, $15 payment, anyone can become a member, which includes the right to collect "dividends" (an annual rebate on purchases) and the right to vote in elections for the Board of Directors. Another nice perk is the REI Visa card, which returns 1% of all purchases to the member in the form of the annual dividends--this is actual cash without all the gimmicks and limitations that other credit cards use.

So, does all of this make REI a "special" store? Or is REI just another big retail chain? I'm not sure yet, but I intend to shop there because the store offers a wide variety of high-quality goods. I haven't shopped around enough to know how well REI's prices compare with those of other stores because I often couldn't find REI's products at other stores; however, for the products that I did see at other stores, REI's prices were comparable, meaning that the annual dividend (up to 10%) is meaningful.

In many ways, REI does behave like any other retail chain. It started out in Seattle, but eventually opened stores all over the country, apparently without much concern for how this would affect the members in Seattle who established the store (as reported in Seattle Weekly). In the few years that I've been a member of REI, I've never voted for a board member--there just didn't seem to be any point to it. It seems that the only meaningful choice the members could make would be to transform the corporation into a network of locally owned stores; but as long as they provide good products at a reasonable price, there isn't a whole lot that I can say about the running of a nation-wide corporation.

REI does emphasize the contributions that they make to the community--they provide funds to maintain and improve trails and parks, they sponsor classes for neighbors, and they also provide support to groups like Bike Pittsburgh. The cynic in me notes that all of these activities serve to increase the market for REI's goods; however, they are honest activities and have good results--unlike, for example, how the Automobile Association of America lobbies for increased government subsidies for automobile use. The idealist (and optimist) in me thinks that REI may just be finding a good use for excess revenues since there are no capital owners expecting returns on their initial investments. Perhaps REI really does have a culture that values its customers and employees: even if Board elections don't allow the members to exert much control, perhaps the Board recognizes that the members expect it to act in a socially responsible manner and that's part of the reason that they continue to support the store.

Anyway, I suggest that you check out REI, and let me know if you have any opinions about its activities and organization.

One last note of interest is that the outdoors equipment market in Canada is dominated by a Co-op, the Mountain Equipment Co-op.

No comments: