Starting as a small cooperative in 1938, REI has grown steadily over the years. Yet cooperatives, in general, seem to relatively scarce in our social landscape. Why has REI done so well?
I would like to say that it is because of fantastic customers like you and me, but it is just barely possible that there are other more important factors....
So, a few years ago I was actually getting quite frustrated with REI. It seemed like instead of selling camping stuff they were selling clothes. I wanted to be able to go to, like, one store before a camping trip and be able to get what I needed. Instead I was driving all over the place to get fuel, matches, food, and such. So I wrote a letter to complain, and I guess so did a bunch of other people because REI remodeled their stores and now have a section devoted to actual camping supplies.
REI also has clothes that fit size large women which is not true for other stores that cater to outdoorsy people.
REI branded stuff is generally basic, functional and not super-expensive.
I think part of the success is a commitment to selling quality gear from recognizable and reputable manufacturers like Patagonia, Royal Robbins, North Face, etc., while also being open to selling gear from new upstarts such as Yeti and HydroFlask. REI branded gear, especially clothes, fills a need for lower priced, no frills entry level gear that still offers quality for the price. I do wish that some REI branded gear clothing stick it out longer. I have bought some REI branded clothing that I ended up loving, but when I needed to replace it a few years later after it wore out, it and nothing like it was available. I also appreciate the sales, the dividends, and REI's commitment to the outdoor community and environment. When I buy at REI I know that I am not helping some already rich entrepreneur accumulate even more wealth.
Getting outdoors as a newbie can be super intimidating, and REI has positioned themselves as an authoritative resource not just with customer service in-person but with a ton of guides on their website as well.
I think outdoor people have a natural enthusiasm to share their love and I think word-of-mouth has really helped them too. I joined in 2007 when my college roommate was an employee. She taught me so much about camping and hiking, and in turn I've since spread the love (and REI recs) to my non-outdoorsy friends and family too. Some of their locations having rock walls really helped to draw in people who otherwise would have shopped elsewhere too.
These things bring people in and then the dividend and free ship to store keeps people shopping there.
In agreement with the other poster though- sometimes it's disappointing to see the men's version but no women's version. An example I came across just recently is the new Patagonia Storm10 jacket which looks to be a great backpacking lightweight rain jacket. When I went to buy it from REI only the men's version is on their site.