June 18th, 2016. This is the day I lost my REI virginity. Being from a small town in Wisconsin, I viewed REI as a mecca of everything an outdoors person could ever need. For me, it embodied the outdoorsy twist on the childhood candy shop. With every piece of gear in seemingly endless quantities, REI intrigued my imagination and appealed to my inner gear junkie. After 22 ½ years, I finally had the opportunity to experience it first hand.
As I stepped in, I was shocked by the pure magnitude of the store. The beautiful wood panels and shelves were littered with every tool and gadget a person could ask for, and there was gear and equipment for every outdoor activity imaginable. I felt as if I had found my long lost twin. Aimlessly stumbling through the vast aisles, I felt as if Santa could do all my Christmas shopping without ever leaving the store. Unfortunately, the longer I walked around REI, the more my perspective changed.
While I was wandering around trying to find some quickdraws, I heard several families discussing the items they were looking to purchase. My quest to find the climbing section prevented me from in-depth levels of eavesdropping, but from the limited snippets I did overhear, the same themes became apparent. Their conversations were not directed around what clothing or gear might work best on an upcoming trip, but instead these families discussed the social particularities associated with each brand. Their choices were not being informed by the physical product in the store, but rather by the societal notions that “others” infer about the wearers of each particular brand. It wasn’t about the weather they expected to encounter, it wasn’t about how functional it is or the specs of the item, it was all about the brand slapped on the front.
Patagonia, North Face, Arc’teryx, and countless other big name companies became the common buzzwords. Don’t get me wrong, I do share a common global infatuation with these companies, but as a society we have repurposed these companies away from their intended use. The iconic Patagonia fleece has gone from keeping people warm while in a bivy for the night to becoming a warm but expensive status symbol to people who probably don’t know what a bivy is.
Once I reached the checkout line with my quickdraw set, I began reflecting on my REI experience with mixed emotions. I will forever love REI’s mission and values of getting people outside, but I was saddened that my fellow customers viewed these amazingly useful and potentially life saving products though such an incredibly superficial lens. As I stepped outside, it was clear than my initial expectations had not matched reality. Outdoor gear is fantastic, but with it comes inherent consumerism, branding, and social scripting. Emotionally conflicted, I stepped into my car and drove away knowing that my time with REI had become officially a one-night stand.
Written by Alex Perronne: Alex hails from Cleveland Wisconsin and enjoys nothing more than going paddling or climbing! Alex's favorite place on earth is the Wolf River, and he can currently be found at the University of Lacrosse eating his fair share of burritos.