For the longest time, I've had REI's website linked, on the RH sidebar of this blog, on the list that falls under the heading titled "Support Your LBS".
At the time I built the list, I had a friend and friends-of-this-friend working there, and it seemed pretty justifiable to include Goliath on the list of Davids, since wages were being paid to locals (albeit out of giant corporate coffers) and therefore funelling back into the Spo economy. And more importantly, because I would be a hypocrite, since I spend money there and since I've been touched by their terrific service, including warranty service, that really focuses, at the macro level, on making you feel like you matter. Because you do, at the macro level. And let's be real - they have tons of low and mid range shit in stock, that targets your macro, mainstream bike consumer appetite, because they have such amazing buying power.
Having the link there has always naggled at me a bit, but I was able to file it into the low-level buzz folder, so it was easy to ignore. Or in other words, not enough to do anything about it.
I was treated to an amazing conversation tonight, with someone who understands Spokane bike business extremely well. I learned a lot, but the big head-slapping, how-could-I-have-not-understood-this moment was when he explained to me how much pressure REI puts on our LBS's, with their annual sales events and 20% discounts and all the marketing hypnotism they possess. Which translates to how much bike revenue they suck up and effectively limits how many LBS's our community can support and what said LBS's can do in terms of living wages and benefits for their employees.
So back to the original question: "Is REI an LBS?" They're certainly working hard to make you think they are.
I'm channeling Dustin Hoffman's character from Rain Man at this point: "Definitely not. Definitely not." Can't believe it took me this long to reach that conclusion.
I've no intent to slam REI. The answer to the question of where and how to responsibly and valuably spend your bike dollars isn't simple. As of tonight, though, REI's off my LBS list. I'm human and therefore attracted to their clothes and camping gear and all other manner of outdoor bling and when I need some bike part at 7:30 at night and no one else is open (let me just be honest) I'm glad they're here. And I'll walk through their doors many times again and they'll certainly welcome me back as one of their fine macro customers, but I'll think a lot harder about the coin I'm dropping and who's pocket it's dropping into and especially with bike stuff, how my spending is affecting our true LBS's.
There's still only one place you can get real, micro (aka "personal") service and that's at the LBS level, and just speaking for me, it's important. So I'll be putting some money where my mouth is.