How REI Re-shaped the Customer Experience

By Collin Robisheaux |  June 22, 2021

When discussing innovation at large companies, REI Chief Experience Officer Curtis Kopf compared the idea of leading co-workers into new, uncharted waters to space exploration in science fiction.   

“If you are working in a company where the legacy business model was incredibly successful, moving away from that is so hard,” Kopf said.  “So I definitely feel as a leader who’s helping to bring people along that it is a little bit like being Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise [in Star Trek], helping to bring everybody to unfamiliar territory.”

In his role at REI, Kopf has carefully navigated the COVID-19 pandemic while paying close attention to customer experience. Kopf sat down with InnoLead CEO Scott Kirsner to discuss lessons learned at REI, the rise of e-commerce, and much more. Takeaways from the discussion follow. 

How REI Re-shaped the Customer Experience During COVID-19

  • Working quickly to best serve customers. At the start of the pandemic, brick and mortar REI locations — which account for 70 percent of the brand’s total revenue — were largely forced to shut down. In order to best serve the customer, REI pulled together and launched curbside pickup options for locations across the country within 3-4 weeks. 
  • Recreating store-level service at home. According to Kopf, REI prizes personalized, in-store customer service provided by employees known as “green vests.” With in-person experiences shut down, REI pivoted to connect customers with store experts online. “One of our product managers…put a phone number on the website in two days and got a few green vests on to answer the calls,” Kopf said.  “The engagement, the purchase, the repeat purchase, the loyalty of customers who are interacting with our green vests virtually, is through the roof.”
  • Identifying new customers. For many, social distancing measures sparked an interest in individual, outdoor activities, creating increased demand for REI products in new demographics. “In fact, today because of [COVID-19], we’re seeing a whole new audience, a whole new group of consumers who are more diverse, who are younger,” Kopf said.

Best Practices for Introducing New, Innovative Ideas

When exploring new ideas, Kopf said innovators have to understand their organization’s level of risk tolerance and change aversion. 

“You have to start with an understanding of the readiness of the organization for change,” Kopf said. “That is the first thing I have learned the hard way. If you get too far out ahead of the organization, that often doesn’t end well.”

Innovators must also understand how new ideas will generate revenue, he said. “What I’ve learned is understanding the business model… If you don’t deeply understand the business model, your efforts at innovation are going to be disconnected from what matters.”

When asked about what advice he had for innovators, Kopf discussed to adaptability and pointed to the advent of e-commerce as an example. When working on curbside pickup, Kopf said, a product manager on his team presented the idea to REI’s CEO. 

“[The CEO] said…‘We have never done anything like this as quickly and as well. How did you do it?'” Kopf retold. “And she said…‘We weren’t focused on perfection; we were focused on progress in iteration.’ And those words have stayed with me, because that is where we’re trying to go…”