In this series, we examine a theory raised by The Wharton School’s Prof. Barbara Kahn that, for whatever reason, Seattle’s retailers just get customer experience. Today, we go on an adventure to REI.
Nestled at the edge of downtown like a small mountain, the REI flagship soars over its immediate neighbors (except I-5), with a full-scale climbing wall visible through the glass.
Walk around the corner to the main entrance and you’re suddenly surrounded by pine trees and a warning sign that the dirt path next to you leads to a mountain bike testing area. You come to an overlook. Flanking you are displays showcasing favorite Washington trails. Down below, a waterfall greets customers who parked in the subterranean garage. I paused for a moment and drew it all in.
A family approached. “This is the coolest REI in the world,” one said. “It’s REI heaven,” her sister exclaimed. They hadn’t made it to the front doors yet.
Upon entry, you’re greeted by a relatively fashionable campsite. Your natural footpath carries you right into the yurt, where you see what life could be like (after purchase). Drop your backpack down by the campstove, plop down in your chair, kick your feet up on the table, and resume your book about craft beers of the Pacific Northwest. All along, the only thing missing was you.
Emerging from the shelter, one finds the climbing wall directly ahead. A trainer was busy coaching a pair of beginners, who cautiously began climbing the mountain located at Eastlake Ave. and Stewart St.
Wandering deeper into the heart of the store, one comes across an open-air living room of sorts. I sank deep into a leather couch, grabbed a book on the world’s greatest hikes, and began perusing. A few yards away, an associate helped a customer test backpacks. “This one has four different zippers, so you can open and pack it any way you need,” she said. “Let me load it with twenty pounds.” She did as she promised, then helped the customer slip it on. “Okay, walk around for a bit and see how that feels. I’ll come back and check on you.”
I went back to thumbing through my book. Looking up, I noticed small paper booklets on the wooden table, subtly advertising REI’s travel business.
Over my shoulder, I saw a wall of one-pagers, each showcasing a different adventure I could take with REI. I tore off the one for kayaking in Croatia, then another where I could sojourn from Chiang Mai to the River Kwai. I put them in my pocket and continued on my more immediate exploration.
Upstairs, small groups of people tried on hiking boots. They sat on standard-issue stools, but there were small boulders next to them, intentionally placed there so customers can test the grip on their possibly new-favorite shoe. The staff’s favorites, meanwhile, were flagged on the display wall. In notes meant to look handwritten, polaroid-framed associates explained how they liked the balance of price and performance for one, or the proven durability under tough conditions for another.
Back on the ground floor, another associate guided an aspiring outdoorsman on the weight balances of various camping knives. “I think I’m leaning towards this one, but I’m just not sure,” the camper concluded. “How much is it?” “I’ll tell you what,” the associate counseled. “Let me go look up both of these for you. I’ll be right back.”
I went out the doors and ventured down to the miniature-waterfall, just to see it up close.
A few moments of babbling water added to the serenity and then, like Moonlight Graham walking out of the cornfield, across the baseline, and into the present day, I stepped back into Seattle’s concrete jungle.
Continue to Part IV: Starbucks Reserve Roastery.