Bringing a Brand Home
I’ll wait in line for lots of things, but the opening of a retail store is not one of them. If I’m in line, it’s probably for music or food. However, recently I found myself trekking to the Noma neighborhood in northeast Washington D.C. for the opening of REI’s flagship store in the city.
I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia – an outdoor lover’s paradise with roaring rapids and winding hiking trails – but admittedly I was not what you’d term as an “outdoorsy” person. Just the opposite, in fact. I was an asthmatic voracious reader who would regularly use my affliction to fake out of gym class, whiling away that hour losing myself in a book, shuffling page after page to the sounds of my classmates shrieking as they scooted away from each other in tag. Despite the fresh mountain air that enveloped our small town, my friends and I spent most of high school indoors going to basketball games, eating at Applebee’s, and playing ping-pong in my parents’ basement, only suiting up in outdoor gear and hiking boots in the winter to survive the long, slippery parking lot walk from our cars to the school.
So my love for REI wasn’t entirely predictable, but since the early 2000s I’ve had a strong affinity for the store – in fact, the only retail affinity that has survived from that time. Somewhere in my 20s, I experienced an adult-onset love for the outdoors: realizing what all the fuss was about when it came to mountains, hikes, trails, vast star-lit skies and the gentle slap of paddle against water. I ended up at REI looking for a decent rain jacket for a trip to Seattle, and after a lengthy chat with a very knowledgeable staff member dressed like he was ready to scale a cliff, I felt smarter and more prepared for the adventure ahead. I felt like REI made it warm and inviting for someone like me to toe-dip into this vast and daunting space. Something about the high ceilings, smartly-crafted gear, eco-friendly vibes, down-to-earth staff, customer-centric return policy – all of which makes me feel good about being there, and inevitably spending a little more than I’d planned on awesome gear. Eventually I became a member of REI – the only membership to anything I possess at the moment – and proudly spend my dividends on more fleeces, waterproof backpacks, and high-impact water bottles, reinforcing my attachment to the woodsy interiors and outdoor-celebrating mission.
So, 12 years after my first REI experience – hours of hikes, paddling sessions, and one failed rock climbing experience later – when I heard they’d created a store IN the heart of my city, I felt compelled to break my wait-in-line rules for the grand opening. I figured others would also show up, lured by the promise of free gifts, coffee and breakfast, but somehow was still surprised and impressed by the slew of those who had camped out in their tents (likely purchased at REI), ready for the ribbon to be cut. What struck me as I became person 285 in line was the atmosphere. Genial, strangers making conversation with each other, wondering whether we made the cut off for the freebies; REI staff who had been up since pre-dawn, bouncing down the line handing out badges, stickers, croissants, and tips (one even counted down the line to assure my friend and I we were within the first 500); a local award-winning high school marching band parading down the street, aligning the new establishment’s vibe with the rhythm and vibrancy that is a part of DC’s roots.
Once the line started moving, the pulse of the experience quickened, with drumline beats, high fives down the line, and the deafening sounds of cowbells being shaken by all of the store staff greeting each new customer. It was fun in a way I didn’t expect, upbeat and communal in a way that made me feel a little more part of the REI family, and that much more committed to the brand. There were marks of DC all over the store: a wall of posters from the days that the building served as the Uline Arena, a prominent music venue that hosted the likes of the Beatles, Woody Guthrie, and DC’s go-go music pioneers; shirts boasting DMV (DC-MD-VA) pride; and a stunning shot of the summit at Old Rag Mountain, a popular Shenandoah National Park hike familiar to any local who gets outdoors in the area. Their theme during this election cycle has been “United Outside,” an ode to all the incredible and beautiful places begging for us to explore, get lost, and find peace.
I was in the store for all of 20 minutes but the experience had a profound impact on me as a consumer and as a person. As someone who travels a lot, maintaining a tie to the city I live in is among the challenges I contend with on a regular basis. In a very simple way, REI created an immediate connection to the place I live and the things I love to do. Seeing this big brand stake a claim in revitalizing unused spaces in the city, promoting the multiple outdoor opportunities, and bringing the heritage of this complex and beautiful national capital to life in their store has made my relationship with the brand more personal, and made me feel good about being part of their community. As a result, I open every single one of their emails, plot purchases for friends and family around their sales, and find myself wandering there when I have time to kill or adventures to plan.
We spend a lot of time at Seek talking about empathy, working to foster connections with the humans we serve in an effort to make products, experiences, and communications that have meaning. The more you practice empathy, the more you can spot the places it shows up, and the more you are affected by the intentionality of it when it’s practiced with you. It’s not just the stuff inside REI – it’s the entire space they curate around their values, and the way their people ensure that’s carried through the full customer experience. In a time when the world feels so divisive, hard to predict, and at times quite insular, when a brand embraces you with open arms and encourages you to expand your journey through this big, beautiful world, the experience is profound, meaningful, and a true breath of fresh mountain air.