Several years ago, I wrote a blog posting about REI and Jilted Boomers. The thrust of my post was to harangue REI for consistently depicting its customers as exclusively under age 40. They do this throughout their catalogs and wall graphics hanging in their Denver "flagship store."
Here's a little back-story. As the Program Committee chair for Rocky Mountain Direct Marketing Association (RMDMA) in 2005, I planned a major event featuring noted marketing professionals. Our keynote speaker was Joe Pine, author of The Experience Economy and Authenticity. Atsuko Tamura, senior vice president of marketing for Recreational Equipment Incorporated, also graciously agreed to speak.
I was pumped up about this speaker line-up. You see, I'm the paradigmatic REI customer. My co-op membership number is 288,XXX, which means I've been buying stuff from REI since about 1970. I've purchased more backpacking and camping equipment through their catalogs than I can ever use. I've already shopped at REI three times this year (which is infrequent for me), dropping a few hundred more dollars on equipment I don't really need (but badly want). Their flagship store in Denver is an experience-seeker's dream-come-true with all kinds of cool and interactive ways to play with the toys before buying.
I was thrilled to be hosting a marketing thought-leader with two bestselling business books to his credit and a senior marketing executive representing my favorite outdoor equipment retailer.
Here's the problem. Several weeks before Atsuko and Joe arrived in Denver, Business Week interviewed me concerning the Boomer business opportunity. When asked to cite some companies that target Boomers but are not effectively reaching out to this market with marketing communications, I mentioned REI. That article appeared about ten days before the big event in Denver.
About a week before the event, I received an email note from REI's Public Relations Manager, with the following comments:
A story in the current issue of Business Week magazine has generated quite a bit of comment around my office, and when I took a closer look I noticed that you were quoted. The part of the article that has my colleagues talking is the implication that REI doesn't understand the importance of the aging population — and I've been encouraged to write a letter to the editor to set the record straight that not only do we recognize the importance of this segment, but that a significant portion of our customer base falls within this category. As such, I'm curious to know if it's your opinion (as a loyal REI member) that we don't place importance on this segment of our population, or if the reference to REI is an editorial comment from the reporter?
Why did I skewer REI, one of my personal favorites? You see, I had studied REI catalogs for several years and noticed that they never used older models. Marketing management carefully balances ethnicity and gender throughout their catalogs, but they almost never show older customers — not just Boomers but even members of the Silent Generation and GI Generation. I took the initiative to write the former REI CEO to make him aware of this obvious oversight.
The subject of my comments to Business Week never came up during the visit. However, Atsuko did tell me one important factoid: Boomers represent around 27% of REI's business. I suspect it is even higher in Denver because this city has the highest Boomer percentage of any major city in the country. In fact, you could say that Denver is the "Boomer Capital of the United States."
If you wander through REI's hallowed Denver flagship you'll see lots of photos like this one:
If you look further, you'll also see a wide diversity of employees, including one graying rock climbing instructor:
Since I wrote the first blog posting about REI in 2005, I've continued to watch their catalogs closely to see if they have made any changes. Once in a great while I have seen a little gray on one or two catalog models (and I'm referring to younger looking male models who might even be prematurely gray. I haven't yet seen any PrimeTime Women.)
Today I sorted through my mail to discover one of my favorite direct mail gifts: REI's summer 2008 catalog. It's graphically inspired but does not have a single photo of a Boomer or someone older ... not one. REI's creative team might defend this because the summer catalog has a distinctly "young family" theme. With respect to this creative decision, I ask, "What about grandparents?" How many Boomer grandparents buy outdoor equipment and share the majesty of natural spaces with their children and grandchildren? Could this be a market worth targeting and developing?
About 28 million Boomers are now grandparents, representing 36% of the generation. Over three million more Boomers will become first-time grandparents this year. They spend lavishly on their grandchildren, not only because that's what grandparents tend to do, but because thoughtful gifts teach core values.
For example, two months ago I gave my neighbor's son, Ian, an REI backpack filled with the "ten essentials" for outdoor survival. Although he's not my grandson, chronologically he could be. In giving Ian this gift, I wanted to share my profound love of nature and the lessons I've learned from wilderness experiences. The backpack symbolizes values bestowed to me by my father.
Several weeks ago, I read blog postings by my colleague Marilynn Mobley, who writes Baby Boomer Insights. It's a good place to find interesting commentary about this dynamic (and challenging) market. She attended the JWT LiveWire Summit in San Francisco last month where Joe Pine discussed concepts from his newest book, Authenticity. As Marilynn reported, "Joe asked audience members to name brands they connected to because they believed the brands were authentic." One brand at the top of the list: REI. (This is an ironic nomination at a conference populated by those dedicated to advancing perceptions and practices of mature marketing. But sometimes these details can be elusive, even to professionals.)
I'm having a problem with REI's authenticity when the company steadfastly refuses to reflect the true diversity of its customer base through marketing communications. I might be the only customer in the world concerned that REI appears to be ageist, but revolutions in social thought and business practice need to start somewhere. (Thank you, Betty Friedan.)
Boomers' money and loyalty built REI into today's outdoor equipment retailing powerhouse. Failure to include these loyal customers in marketing communications is, well, disingenuous.
P.S. I thought you might appreciate this link to the photo of REI's Board of Directors. Clearly and ironically, the majority are Boomers.
P.P.S. You'll need 20-year-old eyes or serious magnifying eyeglasses to read the 8 or 9 pt. sans serif font used throughout REI's summer catalog.
Footnote: A sweeping article in Advertising Age, entitled "Changing Face of the Consumer" and written by my colleague Peter Francese (formerly founder of American Demographics magazine), included the following observation:
The average U.S. head of household is now nearly 50 years old (49.5, to be precise). But here's the bigger story: More than 80% of the growth in the number of households in the next five years will be among those headed by people 55 and older. That's pretty scary stuff for the youth-obsessed.
Update July 9: I visited REI.com today to purchase a birthday gift certificate for my niece Heidi, a tradition I've honored for many years. Out of curiosity, I visited every product category page on the website. (Those can be found in the column of hyperlinks on the left-hand side of the home page.) Each category section leads off with a photo and a block of copy in a yellow rectangle. Out of perhaps 50 pages, I found one page, for backpacks, with a photo depicting someone maybe over 40.