Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted a public forum on July 11 with the group REI Employees for Real Change, in the City Council Chambers. REI employees told stories of personal hardship and corporate mismanagement. We are transcribing and publishing some of their statements.
I like what REI could be, what it would be if the reality matched the rhetoric, but it DOES NOT!
Behind personal hardship as a result of erratic scheduling and negligible pay raises, there is an elitist and oligarchic culture at headquarters where perceptions and priorities are greatly at odds with both the historical character of the coop, and the daily experiences of most employees.
Chronic understaffing, shortfalls or inexplicable discontinuing of our best-selling products and staple supplies, misguided purchasing and design decisions – (several of us call those “future clearance items”) – obsolete or dysfunctional IT systems, logistical inefficiencies, misleading promotional materials, high-maintenance, inefficient decorative displays, and inaccurate product descriptions, all add up to a stressful work environment, low morale, and a culture of distrust.
“Form over function” has become policy. Sales-floor staff are the “shot messengers” who feel the brunt of customer frustration. It is our sanity and dignity that suffers. And every year, we further tighten our belts while picking up the slack for management decisions beyond our control.
We’re decimated for climbing-shoe selection in September, when most people are buying a new pair for the gym. You can’t get ski gloves in January or Cascades-appropriate snow-shoes in February. It’s July now. We’re out of standard glacier-travel ice axes and harnesses at the height of mountaineering season. Nearly all normal-size multi-day backpacks and half of our day-packs are gone, as are upwards of a dozen of the most popular Washington State Green Trails maps. HAVE BEEN FOR WEEKS! With half of the hiking and backpacking year to go. But you can get a $1,300 cooler, or a $100 sundress, or the propeller for a $1,000 drone.
To hear Mr. Stritzke [CEO of REI] speak, one would think that sales-floor payroll were an optional and frivolous expense and the only budget column headquarters can control, rather than an operations necessity and investment in the viability of the store. For every $10 HQ pinches in payroll, we lose hundreds if not thousands in sales because customers go unserved, and product goes unstocked, not to mention loss of loyalty with diminished value to in-person shopping and an increase in theft and returns.
Meanwhile, company margin is adversely affected by all manner of penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions, none of which reduce salaries and bonuses at headquarters. [Applause.] Sales staff knowledge and character get taken for granted and taken advantage of, while our CEO earns as much in an hour as I take home in a month, and our Board members’ stipend is quadruple what a typical front-line person makes in a year.
I suggest a parallel Board with equal clout and equal compensation to that of the existing one, comprised of veteran sales people representing each department and regional market, a rotating one-year term of service to bring more accountability, institutional memory, and actual conversation to correct the current strain and alienation between the store and insular office culture of our so-called coop. [Applause.]
REI’s stated values of “authenticity, quality, and service” could perhaps be recovered by allowing senior front-line staff to audit HQ use of time and money and to influence purchasing decisions before it is too late to salvage the season in a given department.
If that level of collaboration with the green-vest people [i.e. sales-floor workers] requires more of our stated values of “respect, integrity, and balance” than senior leadership can muster, perhaps they could move on and line their pockets someplace else. [Applause.] REI’s sales floor is full individuals with the character, competence, and relevant industry experience to fill their shoes, who NEED a job, who would give it their full attention, not just token dignitary visits several times a year, and who could support a family on the Board stipend of $80,000 a year.
> In this video, at time index 25:40.