CSA Exclusive: REI provides virtual access to outdoor gear experts

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
Dan Berthiaume profile picture
REI customers can virtually engage expert employees.

REI is connecting customers with on-demand, digital access to one-on-one product tutorials.

Thomas Davis, REI virtual outfitting program manager, recently spoke with Chain Store Age about the member-owned, outdoor co-op retailer’s rapidly-growing virtual appointment platform.

“Having on-demand access to expertise has always been in REI’s roadmap,” said Davis. “During the pandemic, there was clearly an urgency for expert assistance. So, we pivoted quickly to digitally connect with customers.”

In early 2020, when COVID-19 first arrived, REI started connecting with customers who wanted to obtain information and gear they needed to get outside as the pandemic limited indoor recreation opportunities. Initially, store managers with cell phones were answering customer questions. Both REI and customers saw tremendous value in creating a direct informational link between shoppers and store staff.

In July 2020, as the pandemic continued and showed signs of being a long-term issue, REI launched a new virtual appointment platform that allowed consumers to work directly with one of REI’s “Green Vest” experts.

“Customers can ask an REI expert for information on everything from bicycle outfitting to backpacking education,” explained Davis. “We select employees who know what to look for and how to talk to the customer.”

On the back end, the REI virtual appointment platform runs on a Salesforce CRM system. The actual video appointments are conducted via the Microsoft Teams virtual conferencing hub. Customers utilize REI virtual appointments for everything from conducting research before visiting store, to fitting outdoor products and gear, to obtaining education on outdoor activities.

The retailer has seen a lot of customer interest in its virtual appointments platform. It has already served over 5,000 customers in its launch in July 2020. The platform serves individual customers as well as group clinics. According to Davis, a recent virtual backpacking session drew 1,100 attendees.

“People use the platform to learn more about activities like running, cycling and hiking, said Davis. “They can also virtually initiate an expert fitting.”

REI is already looking ahead to possible expansions of the platform’s capabilities in the future. Davis previewed some of what may lay in store for users of REI virtual appointments.

“We are going to explore using the feedback setting on Microsoft Teams to create more curated experiences,” said Davis. “Customers who do the same activity need to understand the gear. We want to develop virtual clinics with subject matter experts in areas we are seeing a lot of interest in. We are getting a lot of questions about how to properly hike with dogs.”

Davis also said REI will investigate the possibility of letting customers complete a purchase directly from a virtual appointment, as well as more individually targeting customers with virtual platform services. Davis recalled one particularly personal accomplishment REI helped a customer achieve.

“One REI employee even virtually helped a woman - who had never hiked - get outfitted and prepared to successfully summit Mount Kilimanjaro for her honeymoon,” he said.

The nation's largest consumer co-op, REI has 168 stores in 39 states. 

[Read more: REI in partnership for members to book unique outdoor getaways]