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Outside Business Journal

REI taps 5,000 of its customers as brand ‘advisors’

As outdoor retail leader grows, it looks to maintain connection its with consumers. Can a larger REI also remain small and local?

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Crowdfunding, customer reviews, social media feedback, custom-made products …

In the new era of retail, consumers are not buyers of products, they’re also being asked to help develop, fund and produce them.

The theory — so well illustrated by the success of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter — is that if consumers are involved from the start, they not only get what they want, but they feel a greater connection and devotion to the brands that are willing to listen. They become part of the team.

REI has been growing its team this fall, sending emails to thousands of its most loyal customers with requests to join the brand as “REI Advisors.” So far, it’s amassed 5,000 members, officials tell Outside Business Journal, with a goal to engage in a meaningful conversation about the store and its products.

“It’s best practice in retail to have an understanding and intimacy with the best members, and we just hadn’t done it yet. But we’re thrilled with the response that we got in just a matter of days,” says REI Senior Vice President of Marketing Annie Zipfel.

The responses came from the invitation that REI sent out to its existing email address list, which Zipfel described as a nice mix of ages, activity levels, and tenure with REI. The membership only extends to customers in the U.S. at this point to keep things easy language-wise. To join in the discussion, email recipients simply had to respond to the email invitation.

Once REI established a sizable membership for the program, they began engaging the members in a variety of topics, including everything from products and services to community offerings and digital experiences.

In an exceedingly competitive outdoor retail market, Zipfel hopes this program will allow REI to “go deeper in feedback and really understand more about how members play outside and what role REI can play in that space.” It’s valuable information that is intended to not only improve customer relations, but also help direct future decisions for the brand.

For example, Zipfel says that REI might show the brand’s new products to the advisers first to get a sense of how they like it and what improvements could potentially be made. “This program will give us a sense of whether or not something is a good idea,” Zipfel explains. “It can also give us a heads up that we forgot to put that zipper in, or something else like that right in front of us that we’ve overlooked.”

Alongside these planned consequences of the REI Advisors Program, the discussions have spurred another benefit: a community within the panel. Zipfel says that the members have started to ask how they can communicate with each other.

Outside of the conversational perks, members of the panel can engage in question-and- answer sessions with product designers, buyers, and other REI leaders to ask questions and offer their input. And, from time to time, REI plans to choose panelists to receive gear, gift cards, or even trips.

The program is likely part of a larger effort by REI to continue growing, but at the same time maintain a smaller and more local feel to the brand. Along those same lines, new REI CEO Jerry Stritzke previously has hinted at plans to make each of the retailer’s 135 stores feel more local and individual.

“We take this really seriously. REI is not some big mass retailer who doesn’t know or understand their consumer,” Zipfel says. “When our customers talk, we listen. And this REI Advisors Program is a whole new way for us to get close.”

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