retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Jerry Stritzke was clearly basking in his new reputation as a bold and benevolent boss for closing REI stores on Black Friday so his 12,000 employees could enjoy a paid holiday outdoors with their loved ones.

So when he signed on to Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” online and real time question-and-answer site to discuss his much-heralded move and #OptOutside campaign, expectations were high.

And then they quickly came crashing down.

Stritzke was slammed with questions asking why the outdoor retail co-op didn’t pay its employees a living wage, why it cut their hours and health benefits, and why it penalized experienced, informed workers who didn’t sell enough memberships.

Not to mention why REI sold a snake bite kit that didn’t work, and actually caused more damage to the victim. Ouch.

Welcome to the world of social media, Jerry, where a double-edged sword is just that.

Stritzke, a lawyer by training and an avid outdoorsman, held top posts at Coach and Limited Brands before taking over REI in 2013. He succeeded Sally Jewell, who had been named US Secretary of the Interior.

In addition to be a privately-held member co-operative, REI bills itself as a progressive retailer committed to “inspiring, educating and outfitting” its customers. Stritzke’s decision to close REI’s 143 stores in 35 states on Black Friday was seen as bolstering the firm’s claim that working for REI is “a lifestyle” and worthy of its perennial placement on the Fortune "100 Best Companies to Work" list. Stritzke has likened his sales staff to “merchants of joy.”

Merchants of disappointment is more like it, based on the Reddit threads. Dozens of current and former employees ripped the company, likening the membership sales requirements to a Ponzi scheme and the scheduling and pay structure as Draconian.

One post said it was “both hilarious and cringeworthy to see the company line and employee line colliding in this thread.” This customer’s response was typical: “I feel like this just ripped the curtain back and changed the way I perceive REI.”

Stritzke was only on the thread for the first two hours, when there were some 300 comments, but the barrage continued overnight with some 5,000 posts. Clearly his PR team was monitoring the thread, and he returned the next day and answered some of the questions.

I honestly think Stritzke & Co. were so caught up in their own hype they made crucial mistakes.

First, as anyone who has followed Reddit’s Ask Me Anything can tell you, the Anything is just that. And this isn’t the first AMA to be hijacked by angry voices. Just ask actors Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman, political pundits Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow, and even philosopher/guru Deepak Chopra – all tagged in the “AMA Disaster” files.

Stritzke was clearly not prepared for the employee backlash. He did address a few of the issues the following day, but sidestepped others, which only extended some of the diatribes. He promised a “collective conversation” about membership sales and employee performance and wages.

Stritzke closed by saying: “Bottom line, though, an open and transparent conversation is something CEOs should not be afraid of. I, for one, welcome it.”

I think this illustrates just how complicated modern management is today – you can get some stuff right (as Stritzke did with Black Friday) but if you get other stuff wrong it can really tarnish the brand. And the speed and volatility of social media means your conversation with consumers can veer off course drastically, as was the case with REI and Reddit.

So what is the most expeditious way to regain control of the narrative?

Good question. There are no easy answers, especially as technology and social media continue to evolve

It is the kind of question that I will continue to ask when this column resumes in 2016. Hopefully, we can find some answers together.

I’d like to close this post by wishing the MNB community all the best this holiday season and in the New Year.

Comments? As always, send them to me at kate@morningnewsbeat.com .
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