Store of the Future   //   October 23, 2019

REI chief customer officer Ben Steele: Retailers need to ask why they exist

REI is extending Opt Outside. The retailer is again closing its stores and websites this Black Friday so employees can, ostensibly, go outside. This year, it’s also starting an Opt to Act program, joining a nationwide clean-up effort to collect trash, clean up their neighborhoods and tackle waste. The company is also rethinking its own business model to use fewer plastic bags, change up its manufacturing practices and be 90% zero-waste by end of next year.

Modern Retail caught up with chief customer officer Ben Steele to discuss the new program, brand purpose and why selling goods just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Edited highlights below.

You’re putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to brand purpose.
The interesting thing about REI is we’re an 82-year-old business that in its construction is a co-op. We don’t exist to maximize shareholder profit. We exist to maximize to the community of people. About 70 cents of every dollar we make goes back to the outdoors. While purpose and brand are definitely on the acceleration –broadly in marketing — for the co-op it’s not a new idea. We’re excited to see more businesses think about how they can energize and activate their communities. 

You’ve seen plenty of big talk out there about connecting purpose to profit.
The co-op has helped demonstrate to brands that putting your values first and putting your purpose first is good for business. We talk a lot about growth as not only an imperative but also growth for business as a way of scaling our impact. The more we can scale as a business, the more we can do as an investment in the outdoors.

One of the broader trends now in retail is making stores more about experiences, not stuff. You’ve done this with your new North Conway, New Hampshire store. Why?
The North Conway location is really a gateway. What is a physical space where the primary purpose is enabling outdoor experiences and retail isn’t really at the center? Gear and apparel is a huge part of what we offer to our customers. But expertise and discovery are really what makes the co-op special. That’s what we measure.

But you’re measuring what you’re selling too.
Yes but the thing is, the “stuff” is largely, and more and more commoditized. The way we talk about it is, we were founded to help people find ice axes. Now, there are a lot of places to get ice axes. The problem the co-op was founded to solve has been solved. Everyone has to say what problems we’re solving for customers. Retailers need to step back and ask, “What do I exist to do for my customer?” 

You changed your job title too. You were chief creative officer. Now you’re chief customer officer.
The role is oriented around not just thinking about a single touchpoint, but also all these customers we have to think about organizing that way. The danger for our business is you become siloed and you become focused on it.

You’ve also done more in terms of investing in drop shipping, direct fulfillment, buy online and pick up in-store. Those are challenging to pull off.
We are constantly thinking about the relationship between digital and stores. The conversation tends to be cyclical. There is a single answer and then a different single answer. We really think of customer experience as a network. All of that plays a role. Co-op media plays a role. The new magazine we’ve launched this year plays a role. We’re doing more like letting people rent gear, not just buy. We do garage sales. We just need to collectively access the customer.