"Wow, the tremendous amount of support I have received from the community is truly humbling," reads the most upvoted comment in the CEO of REI's Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Except it's not from him, it's from an employee complaining about working conditions. And he's not alone.
Yesterday, Jerry Stritzke attempted to capitalise on Internet buzz around his decision to close all stores on the US Black Friday shopping holiday, taking to Reddit to participate in one of their popular Ask Me Anything threads. For those out of the loop in Australia, REI stands for Recreational Equipment Inc, a company similar to our Kathmandu or the North Face, which specialises in outdoor gear.
It started out well.
It's the morning after Thanksgiving, and you walk through the silent aisles of a closed for the day REI. Your tummy is full of the turkey your wife so excellently cooked on a MSR wisperlight. You prop your hand up on you sides and think to yourself, " By god Jerry, we did it… #optout worked..." But no, I'm there, /u/buttmonkey1120… with black diamond crampons strapped to my feet and a used camelback bladder in my hands. I have red eyes, like those of a crazed black friday shopper. You know I will ruin #optout black friday for everyone unless stopped.
What two pieces of equipment in the store would you use to fight me to the death? PS: thanks for doing this
To which Stritzke responds:
I have to start with the Black Diamond Ice axe!! I think I would also go with crampons.
And it looks like demand for fun jobs selling outdoors gear in a co-op environment is high. MrUs writes:
I've been trying to get an interview at REI for about three years now and have been unsuccessful. I've applied online numerous times, networked with REI BPs and Store Managers on LinkedIn for similar advice, and have delivered a resume in person here in Denver to no avail…may I send my resume to you?
And believe it or not, Jerry says yes!
I can relate, I tried to get them to talk to me for six months before I got my first conversation :) Love the persistence, here is where to send your resume and I'll make sure the right people see it: [email protected]
But that's not the end of that thread. FirstTryName has some advice for prospective employees:
You may reconsider applying when you re-read this AMA from the top today.
And that's where things started to go wrong. The most upvoted comment on the thread (with 5,357 uproots to the 4,249 of Stritzke's opening post) from annonemp reads in part:
Over the course of a year, I received top marks in my check ins, was eventually cross trained in every department, helped out with inventory preparations, stayed overnight to assist with store moves, and trained new batches employees [sic] in multiple departments. For a brief time my membership sales stagnated, but my quality of service and product knowledge continued to excel. It was like somebody flipped a switch. I was denied a promotion because I did not sell enough memberships. I had my hours cut from 30 hours a week to less than 10 because I did not sell enough memberships. Additionally, I was not allowed to pick up shifts from people that didn't want to work because I did not sell enough memberships. Similar things happened to some of my most authentically qualified co-workers as well. Finally, after moving across the country with the assurance of a transfer, I was told by the store in the new city that I did not sell enough memberships and therefore they did not have any room on the payroll for me. I was not even given the courtesy of an interview with the store to assess any of my other skills, just a brief email wishing me good luck. I lost my health insurance, a source of much needed income, and any potential co-worker friends in a new city where I knew no one.
And it doesn't look like annonemp is alone.
Former employee here and can confirm this. How many memberships you sell is the ONLY metric by which you will ultimately be measured. Product knowledge, customer service skills, overall work ethic are worth ZERO if you are not selling x number of memberships per shift, (which was spelled out very clearly by management on a regular basis, including being told that any customer complaints about an employee being overly aggressive in trying to promote the membership would result in said employee being rewarded in terms of scheduling/perks). — wartsnall1985
The trick is to not waste your time with members, they are worth nothing. — follier
As a former employee, I too agree that working for REI was a huge life mistake. Incredibly upsetting and disappointing for many reasons I can't share here. — REI_Whatever
And there's hundreds of similar examples, but you get the idea.
Stritzke went on to respond to other softball questions, but ignored the concerns of anonemp and others related to working conditions at the national retail chain. Redditors pressed him to answer.
As a fellow former REI employee, this is the only question I want to see an answer to. — dicemastaflex
Late last night, Stritzke did:
Annonemp - First, I want to reiterate that I wasn't avoiding your question. This was my first AMA and I answered as many questions as I could in the time I was online — clearly the conversation kept on after that.
I'm certainly concerned about your experience and to hear others express the same. Our members and customers are our first priority and providing them with knowledgeable insights is the most important thing we do. I believe that this expertise and a shared passion for the outdoors are our overwhelming strengths as an organisation and am very proud of the men and women wearing green vests in our stores.
I have to admit the emphasis on membership sales was a surprise to me when I joined the co-op two years ago. Given that I was new, I wanted to have a better understanding of the co-op structure and some of the whys behind our actions. There is no doubt that the co-op structure is focused on the concept of membership and there is long institutional memory reinforcing the idea that we should encourage as many people to join the co-op as possible — we believe in the mission and purpose of the co-op.
Having said that, we may have lost sight of the bigger picture. The truth is that we should have been doing a better job sharing what makes the co-op special. We should have a "pull" model (people want to join because they believe in our mission and they love the experience), not a "push" model when it comes to the co-op. And the most important thing is that our employees in our stores know that their skill, deep outdoor knowledge and customer service are the things that matter above everything. To be clear, that is how our people should be measured.
I feel like your story represents a measure of individual performance taken to an extreme and I am committed to understanding what happened. I appreciate you sharing your story and I assure you that we are looking into how we are using this measure. Good conversation.
But again, Annonemp does not appear to be alone:
This experience actually does sound usual to a significant amount of us, and should be addressed as such. — LACycling
As an REI customer, it's incredibly irritating to be constantly pushed to buy a membership by every employee I encounter. A checkout employee laughed in my face yesterday when I told him I didn't have a membership. Makes me not ever want a membership, and makes me not want to shop at REI. — Gazorp
Same story over here. I worked for the co-op for ten years was an Anderson award winner and was slowly pushed out because my membership sales did not meet expectations while my product knowledge and outdoor experience continued to grow. Towards the end I began to realise that to a certain extent REI is like a Ponzi scheme. In 2007 they decided to peg the dividend payout at 10% of full priced purchase. This 10% payout, from my understanding, was something that would happen no matter how the company performed. In order to meet this payout amount the co-op must continue to bring in more and more new members every year. Furthermore, by pushing memberships sales so much you dilute the buy in of the members. No one votes for the board anymore. The board members are continually handpicked by the existing board. My understanding is that at some point within the last 20 or so years the by laws were even changed to make it impossible for anyone not handpicked by the board to even get their name one the ballot by denying access to the membership list. In a typical publicly owned company the stockholders care about what happens. This is largely no longer true of REI. — forknbowl
As of the time of writing, the thread has 3,208 comments; Stritzke has stopped responding. We've requested comment from REI and will update when we hear back.