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Why has REI Coop been so successful?

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....



Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
11 Replies

That is a good question!  

The other coop that I am familiar with and belong to, MEC (Mountain Equipment Cooperative) sold to a private group in 2020.  It feels like a loss, even though I haven't purchased from them in years.  The quality of their gear has been top notch.  I hope that hasn't changed since the buyout.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
MEC (Mountain Equipment Cooperative) 

As a Canadian who is a MEC member with 5-digit number my impression is that they lost their way. There were many reasons for that, including mismanagement and internal squabbling.

I've bought a few things since the buyout, both online and in-store. I haven't seen much change yet. As it happens this year is MEC's 50th anniversary. They've started selling some resurrected classics. We'll see what else they'll do to start the next 50 years on a better footing.

The quality of their gear has been top notch.

If you mean house brand then generally yes. But in my experience it's not as good as REI's house brand. I've often thought that MEC would have been better off to make some arrangement to resell REI's rather than reinvent the same wheels. Of course I have no inside information about whether they ever considered that or approached REI, etc.


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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....

I would say that it's also because of good customer service. Everyone at REI that I've ever been in contact with, be it in store, on the phone or via email has been knowledgeable, helpful and generally very enthusiastic.

The combination of great products at good prices sold by wonderful people is a winning combination.


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I'm going to have to say customer service. REI has some of the best customer service of any company I've dealt with. They may not have the largest variety of gear, but when they do have what I'm looking for, I'll buy it from them before any other company.

As a customer, I have many places where I can go buy the same things I get from REI. I choose REI over and over for the following reasons:

(1) Knowledgeable customer service. In most stores, I can go ask for help and I will probably get someone who can do no more than read the box to me. At REI, I can have a conversation about what I want to do with someone who actually participates in that activity, has used the gear I'm thinking about, and can help me get the right item.

(2) Quality. A lot of places that sell outdoor goods sell a lot of garbage. I'm lookin' at you, Wal-mart, Target, and I don't want to be out in the wild, find myself in bad weather or other emergency, and be dependent on the cheapest possible option. I want to have stuff I can rely on. Seldom have I purchased a bad item from REI. REI curates its selection to filter a lot of that out.

(3) Brick & mortar store. Sometimes it really helps to actually put hands on an item. Also, going back to point #1, it often helps when someone can show me how something works. You can't do that online.

(4) No guns. Frankly, I feel really uncomfortable being in a store with guns. I walk into Cabela's, for example, and seeing the wall of guns against the wall just makes me feel nervous. Guess how often I walk into Cabela's? Not often.

(5) REI sells for what I do. I paddle, hike, bike, camp, fish, travel, snow shoe, and do wildlife photography. Except for fishing, that's pretty much what REI sells for. No, I didn't buy my camera at REI. But I have bought photography gear here.

(6) I don't get ignored. I've been in outdoor goods stores where the employees walk past me to help the people walking behind me as if I don't exist. Again, looking at you, Cabela's. 

(7) Less mansplaining. I'm sorry. I know lots of men get defensive if someone mentions that word. And REI associates actually do some mansplaining. But there's a lot less of it. Again, looking at you Cabela's. I am aware that I'm a woman. I'm even aware that more men than women are outdoor consumers. But I'm not buying stuff to go join my boyfriend or husband on a camping trip for the first time ever. I have actually set foot outside. In fact, one of my parents was a park ranger, so I got taught to read a compass as a third grader. Thank you very much. REI doesn't talk down or treat me like an idiot near as much. Perhaps because outdoorswomen work there, so it's not such a shocking thing. 

At the same time, there are also things that drive me away from REI and push me to go elsewhere. Luckily, those things are usually outweighed by what brings me in. Those include things like:

(1) Unequal product selection. Seriously, REI, you say you're trying to promote gender equity in access to outdoor gear. But I go look for gear like paddling gloves or jackets, for example, and find myself faced by . . . the men's version. But REI doesn't carry the women's version. So my choices are to walk around wearing something so big it looks like I'm wearing a tent or go buy elsewhere. I pretty much always buy elsewhere. And, sadly, I do not believe REI when it says it wants to provide equal access to gear. If they really wanted to do that, it wouldn't be hard to say to its suppliers, "Hey, this men's jacket looks awesome, we'd like to buy some, and could you send us a few of the women's versions too?"

(2) REI doesn't carry the stuff for some activities. Fishing. And the photography gear is limited. Technical winter gear is also not REI's strength. But REI can't be everything for everybody.

(3) Pandemic. Again, not REI's fault by any means, but it really does make me think twice about walking into stores. Especially in light of the delta variant and all these people who refuse to get vaccinated. 

Overall, I love REI. But my main problem is that whole lack of equal access to gear. Seriously, I can't buy it from REI if REI won't sell it to me.

REI historically, has responded to an expanding target market, providing a selection of quality merchandise at competitive prices, well merchandised stores, an excellent online shopping website and 5 star customer service.

With viable competition from Cabella’s, Bass Pro Shop and Sportsman’s Warehouse, there are ample choices for the consumer of high quality outdoor adventure products and services at competitive prices. 


They found a mission area (consolidated outdoor products in one location) that needed a solution and stuck with it.  They did not expand to get to big and stayed focused on they're customer base.  🙂 

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

REI lost its way back in the late '80s, at least briefly. They sent out a Holiday catalog that didn't have a single stove in it! I was in college at the time... We all referred to it as the "Yuppie REI Catalog".

Mostly, they've catered to an ever-aging member base. As we've gotten older and had kids, they've met our needs for gear for those kids, and for the inevitable car-camping trips and the like. Meanwhile, they keep enough stuff available for the casual climber or backpacker. And of course they've expanded into lucrative markets, with stores all over both coasts.


Their stores are indistinguishable from any other chain. Big buildings surrounded by parking lots in the newest outdoor malls. No adaptive reuse here!

They're all about marketing. The more stuff they can sell you, the better! I'd much rather rent some things, but they have very limited rentals.



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.