Starting Wednesday, Seattle-area REI fans can enjoy at least a taste of the pre-pandemic shopping experience as the outdoor retailer partly opens six local locations under Washington’s new coronavirus rules.
And while REI hopes returning customers will wear masks, CEO Eric Artz says, that won’t be a requirement.
At five REI locations — in downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, and at the Alderwood and Southcenter shopping centers — customers will be able to make curbside pickups of online orders, the Kent-based outdoor retailer announced Tuesday.
On May 3, the five locations began offering so-called zero-contact bicycle-repair services, where employees receive, repair and return bikes without any direct contact with customers. A sixth local REI location, in Issaquah, also has offered the bicycle-repair service since May 3, but it will not yet open for curbside pickup.
The Seattle-area reopenings follow last week’s announcement by Gov. Jay Inslee that nonessential retailers can reopen for curbside pickup in the first of the state’s four-phase reopening plan. Five other Washington state REI locations — in Silverdale, Olympia, Bellingham, Kennewick and Spokane — will also resume curbside pickup Wednesday as part of the retailer’s plans to reopen more than half of its national fleet of 162 stores in time for its anniversary sale, which runs May 15—25; those stores have offered bicycle-repair service since May 3.
All reopened locations will follow strict health and safety guidelines, the company said. In a letter to members, Artz said store employees will wear face coverings, and he asked customers to wear them, too. “It’s a simple thing that we can all do right now to take care of one another,” Artz said, adding that stores will provide free masks to customers who don’t have one.
But an REI spokesperson was quick to note that customers who chose not to wear masks would not be refused service unless the stores were in jurisdictions requiring face coverings in public areas. “Broadly, it’s a request, not a requirement,” spokesperson Halley Knigge said.
In making masks voluntary, REI may avoid some of the controversy that has enveloped Costco, which requires customers to wear masks.
REI’s reopening comes almost two months after it closed its physical locations and put many of its 14,000 employees on paid leave for what was hoped would be a short shutdown. But in early April, the company announced it would furlough many of its employees without pay for 90 days and cut pay for senior managers.
Wednesday’s reopening will see some of those furloughed staff back in the stores, though Knigge acknowledged that staffing levels would be lower. “We will be operating with fewer people in-store than we did prior to our temporary store closures in this immediate period, particularly in stores that are just offering curbside pickup and zero-touch shop services,” she said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
REI returns to an outdoor retail sector that has fared unevenly during Washington’s stay-at-home period. While rival Patagonia has been slow to reopen, with plans to offer curbside-pickup service at only 10 locations by May 20, down-market competitor Big 5 remained open as an “essential” business, thanks to sales of products such as coffee makers, humidifiers, air mattress and sleeping bags, according to one Seattle-area store employee.