REI scraps mail order catalog to publish a magazine

Photo: REI
Jun 24, 2019
Tom Ryan

REI is discontinuing its mail order catalog in favor of launching the Uncommon Path print magazine dedicated to delivering inspirational stories about outdoor life and culture.

The magazine will be published by Hearst Magazines in collaboration with an in-house team of journalists and editors at REI. The magazine will be available this fall at all REI stores and select newsstands.

The first set of stories “take readers on a bike ride through Atlanta with Civil Bikes founder Nedra Deadwyler; explore the beautiful landscape of the U.S./Mexico border; and discover the eerie green glow of phosphorescent diatoms in the intra-coastal waterway of northern Florida,” according to a statement from REI. Product recommendations and gear reviews will be included.

The magazine, along with other media offerings — an online journal, film and podcast program — all support REI’s expressed purpose “to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors, for all.”

REI has earned praise for its OptOutside campaign in which it closes its stores and online site to encourage people to go outdoors rather than shop on Black Friday. The co-op gives back 70 percent of its profits each year to local and national nonprofits to support access to outdoor places.

“We’re seeing smart brands like REI take an innovative approach to content by building audiences with their own premium-quality, branded editorial products,” said Brett Hill, editorial director of HearstMade.

REI also announced a nationwide campaign to strengthen local journalism in partnership with NewsMatch. REI said nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004 and a 2018 research paper found that corporations pollute more when there aren’t local newspapers to hold them accountable.

In May, H&M joined a number of retailers who have either ceased catalog production or pulled back. In 2016, Victoria’s Secret announced that it was stopping its production, and last August IKEA announced that it would be pulling back on catalogs to support the company’s sustainability goals. REI launched in first catalog in 1948.

A number of traditional retailers, from Walgreens to Costco, send out free magazines, and digital retailers like Net-a-Porter and Away sell magazines, although it’s rare for a retailer-supported magazine to hit the newsstand.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of REI’s move to replace its mail order catalog with the Uncommon Path print magazine? Does the magazine have to be profitable to be deemed a success? Should other retailers look at starting magazines as content opportunities?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"In today’s multichannel world, every touchpoint a retailer offers to consumers – stores, websites, magazines – serves the role of a catalog."
"It’s not REI’s style to pay hollow faux-influencers like the bright and shiny brands du jour do. I like their long view."
"I think this is part of the general shift among brands towards giving customers reasons to buy, rather than just selling to them."

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20 Comments on "REI scraps mail order catalog to publish a magazine"

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Mark Ryski

The trend to shift away from catalogs appears to be well on its way, and so this move seems like a natural evolution for REI. While this may be part of a broader trend, the reality is that the catalog was likely discontinued because it was not delivering the revenue it once was or needs to be. I’m surprised with the shift to magazines as it seems a younger demographic would be more interested in videos and images a la YouTube and Instagram respectively vs. a magazine.

Jon Polin

In today’s multichannel world, every touchpoint a retailer offers to consumers – stores, websites, magazines – serves the role of a catalog. I like this move by REI to use a magazine to inspire a consumer lifestyle that then sends the consumers to a store or site to buy the products that support the lifestyle.

Ben Ball

Costco Connection sets the bar for member engagement by addressing a broad range of member interests with informative journalism and recommendations. REI has the added advantage of having a specific interest community, so they should be able to leverage an interest-driven publication even better. This is a wise step up from their traditional catalog on several levels.

Brandon Rael

Content is king and storytelling is the way to connect, engage, and attract customers to your brand. Simply put, printed catalogs are just not effective in our digital age. REI is taking the right approach here, with more storytelling-like strategy that really resonates with a customer that is looking to disconnect from all our connectivity.

Just as the physical retail space is undergoing a renaissance, print magazines when done effectively are the antidote and escape that consumers want to dive into, after spending hours on their smartphones, laptops, and e-readers. It’s the mix of print, digital and films that will help to drive the storytelling which is what REI is all about.

Ultimately this will help drive more engagement with the brand, and additional sales.

Phil Rubin
7 months 21 hours ago

Given REI’s brand and authenticity, this seems like a smart move to engage its customer base in a relevant and credible way. CONTENT. It’s not just for social media. When it is created and delivered in a way such as this it’s much more valuable, especially for a brand like REI.

The partnership with a publisher like Hearst should help address the profitability — or cost — question. Does it have to make money for REI? Not necessarily. But isn’t it interesting to ask that question for something like this versus image advertising, online advertising or social? To the extent that it’s not profitable, it’s likely a good investment in customers, the brand and the business. It’s not REI’s style to pay hollow faux-influencers like the bright and shiny brands du jour do. I like their long view.

Neil Saunders

This makes a lot of sense for a brand like REI.

A catalog seems like a waste of resources, especially when information is so readily available online. A magazine will no doubt be used and valued more and fits perfectly with REI’s vision of inspiring people about outdoor life.

Lauren Goldberg

The main reason for discontinuing the catalog was the return on investment — print catalogs don’t drive the same sales lift as they used to. To take the financial resources of catalog production and move them into a branded magazine is an interesting choice. With the internal and external resources dedicated to the magazine, hopefully it will deliver strong content, which will be a brand building play. If they are looking for this magazine to be profitable or to generate a direct sales ROI (like a catalog), I’m afraid it’s not going to happen.

Gene Detroyer

Good. One less catalog to go straight to recycling.

Lee Peterson

I like this move in that it brings them closer to being a lifestyle brand vs. just some place that sells “stuff.” I always admired Abercrombie’s Magalog and wondered why they gave up on it as it covered everything their customer was interested in very creatively. I would suspect that REI will really be able to connect with their constituents like they have with their closing on Black Friday. Can’t wait to pick it up.

Liz Adamson

For some time now online digital marketing has been focused on creating content designed to educate and inspire. It seems that REI is simply following that trend in a print format. Today’s consumers don’t simply want to be sold to, they want to know that the company/brand is aligned with their values and interests. Sharing valuable content, whether digital or in a print magazine helps connect consumers to the brand and create brand loyalty that will bring them back into the store over and over again.

Evan Snively

A few thoughts here:

  1. Becoming a content creator makes sense for REI given their market position and brand mission.
  2. I’m not sold that no in-home print communication is the way to go, though I will agree that full blown catalogs hold a lot less power than they used to. REI is a brand that *should* be able to execute highly segmented and much smaller mailers to its target customers based on past purchase behavior, demographics, and activities of interest. I think the trust is there with their brand too, where customers would be willing to provide more detailed information to REI if they asked for it.
Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
7 months 20 hours ago

With e-commerce sites that are more comprehensive and updated with the latest promotions, mail order catalogs appear to be a dying breed. The same thing has been said about the store but news of its demise is in fact premature. In fact some private equity folks we have worked with are making investments in the catalog space. While there isn’t a direct measurement of the impact of print magazines on store and online revenues, REI’s Uncommon Path magazine is more about image and brand perception than sales. I would look at this as something akin to what RH Gallery is doing with their showroom and high-end catalog offering. As a co-op, REI puts purpose before profits.

The magazine offers a better forum than a catalog to communicate stories that support REI’s mission to encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors and its ongoing efforts toward environmental sustainability.

Anne Howe

What I love about this change is the emotion the stories will evoke among readers. It only takes seconds to move from a powerful emotional story to a click onto the website for a shopping trip. I submit the conversion to purchase is way better when the trip driver is feeling versus static product shots!

Mike Ni
7 months 19 hours ago

With the rich, experiential content that can be reinforced across magazine, online, community, and store and e-commerce serving the needs for ordering, a magazine to reinforce a connection to this community and category leadership seems a strong move.

Carlos Arambula

REI is not just a retailer, but a destination — a source of information to its customers. The brand relationship has surpassed that of a retailer-customer, and Uncommon Path serves to further that positioning.

I don’t believe many retailers have achieved REI’s brand relationship with consumers — nor will they ever achieve it. Most retailers have to focus on value and that makes the relationship transactional.

There are learnings from REI’s action and I would encourage retailers to learn their role in the life of their core consumers and adjust communication to it.

Cate Trotter

If this is done right, then it’s still going to be shoppable in the same way as the mail order catalogue. In fact, it could even be more effective because rather than just saying “buy this” or “look what you could buy,” it’s going to give customers reasons to buy. They’ll be able to see how certain products fit in with the things they want to do, and be inspired with new ideas, which in turn may prompt them to buy necessary equipment. Plus, let’s face it, it’s likely that the mall order catalogue wasn’t delivering anymore anyway.

I think this is part of the general shift among brands towards giving customers reasons to buy, rather than just selling to them. No one wants to be bombarded all day long with sales patter, but we appreciate people who help and inspire us.

Ananda Chakravarty

The move to a print magazine will be less valuable to REI. The cost for content will increase and return on this investment will drop substantially. Perhaps REI wasn’t generating much sales through their catalogs but for most retailers, there is a small but loyal following in this space who enjoy the product pictures and descriptions — and the immediate sale opportunity with an email address or phone number. The magazine does have to drive sales even if indirectly, to be successful.

However, magazines, unless ad-heavy, will not be able to match a catalog for sales or influence. Reading print is just not the trend. For REI’s loyal following, they should first start with smaller catalogs and catalogs with included content before a straight-up swap for a magazine.

Chris Angell

Moving away from a print catalog is a fine idea for REI, but it may be a challenge to have strong ROI with a print magazine. Few companies succeed with print today, as more media is consumed digitally. So the question is less around a magazine and more print v. digital.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

REI will be successful with this initiative as long as the content is valuable and relevant to consumers, supports their value and messages, and is integrated with marketing, operations and sales efforts.

Mark Price

Since the goal of catalogs is more to drive engagement than actually to turn into the main driver of customer transactions, I think the magazine approach is spot-on. Catalogs usually lean 80-90% to product and only 10% or less to content; yet, what drives readership in a world where you can see all the products online is the content.

This magazine will reinforce brand presence, drive increased engagement and also drive a fair amount of short and long term transactions. In addition, this magazine is likely to appeal to REI core customer segments which will have a great er effect than content driven at customers with a lower base engagement level.

Well done.

"In today’s multichannel world, every touchpoint a retailer offers to consumers – stores, websites, magazines – serves the role of a catalog."
"It’s not REI’s style to pay hollow faux-influencers like the bright and shiny brands du jour do. I like their long view."
"I think this is part of the general shift among brands towards giving customers reasons to buy, rather than just selling to them."

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