9 Things I Learned While Working At REI During A Pandemic

About this time last year, I got tired of being an under-employed boob wearing out my pajamas faster than my underwear.  I was going pandemic stir-crazy and driving my partner crazy too.  The only one who was happy to have me home as much as I was, was our walk-hungry dog, Tango.  I’d always known that I would work for REI at some point in my life, and now it seemed like the fastest cure to my cabin fever.  I applied for, and got the job.

Like anything, it has been a strange year to work in retail.  In my first go-round of serving the public, I’ve observed a lot, and been confused a lot.  Not only has COVID-19 infused life with a mortal fear of human contact, but it has disrupted many things that we took for granted and pushed more people into the backcountry than ever before.  Reduced supply and increased demand have rendered the in-store shopping experience a game of roulette.  Thru-hiking might be a thing again, but the world is still in the grips of a terrifying public health crisis.  A complete return to ‘normal’ is looking less and less likely everyday.  In some cases, that isn’t a bad thing.

I Can’t Complain

The following is a list of observations that I’ve made during my time as a Camping and Action Sports Sales Specialist at my local REI.  I write this at the risk of sounding too “complainy” or ungrateful for my time working a job that I truly enjoy.  It’s not my intention to shame anyone or wag a finger.  As an imperfect and sometimes hypocritical human being myself, that finger wag can be turned in my direction too, with startling rapidity.

Worth mentioning is that my experience at REI has been overwhelmingly positive so far.  Along with my coworkers and our customers, we all share a love for the outdoors, green vests, and Altras.  And while talking about gear and backpacking isn’t as fun as the real thing, it at least gets me dressed and out of the house.  Sorry, Tango.

The following views are solely my own and do not reflect those of my coworkers or REI.  I am not disgruntled or crazy.  Just confused and hungry.

#1 Wearing a mask sucks

No one likes wearing a face mask, but we have to.

Before working at REI, I rarely wore a mask because I rarely left the house.  Making the shift to wearing one for eight hours at a time was uncomfortable and itchy.  Many months later, I’m used to it now, and even survived a few months of double-masking with a bonafide N95 mouth-coffin, but wearing a mask still sucks.

On occasion I will interact with customers who are less than enthused that state or store policy requires masks indoors.  If they give me grief, I nod understandingly, then point out (unless they’re bigger than me, which is most of the time) that absolutely no one wants to return to a ‘normal’, mask-less lifestyle more than those of us who are required to wear masks at work.  Sure, I don’t need to shave as much now that my face is always covered, but nobody likes wearing masks.  We agree that it isn’t ideal.  Giving a hard time to employees who are just trying to stay employed and healthy is unproductive.

#2 Retail employees are vulnerable

Masks, hand sanitizer, and frequent hand washing have kept me healthy so far.

Before working at REI, all my previous jobs had me behind a desk, safely distant from the public.  After joining the sales floor, I quickly realized how vulnerable I was in my new position.  Interacting with dozens of strangers per day, touching a lot of surfaces that strangers have touched, it is hard to feel great about my exposure to the coronavirus.  Even with mask mandates in effect and social distancing guidelines, I feel virtually guaranteed to have had dealings with infected customers.  For this reason, I wore an N95 mask until I was fully vaccinated.  I fear for the health of those workers in a similar position who don’t have the same protection.  Fortunately, the REI safety protocols have kept us safe for now, but having zero control over who walks through those doors is unsettling.

While resupplying in Bishop, CA during my hike on the Sierra High Route this July, my role was reversed.  At the time, masks were not required in stores so I didn’t wear mine when I hungrily staggered into Safeway.  Employees were still in masks though, and I immediately felt weird, like I had betrayed them.  They were protecting my health by wearing masks whether they wanted to or not.  It felt like the least I could do was return the favor.  I will continue to wear my mask inside public spaces for as long as the employees who work there are required to.

#3 I love and hate pack fitting

Where the magic happens. Let’s talk backpacks.

One of my most important jobs is also one of the hardest.  We all know that a properly fitting backpack is darn near essential for an enjoyable experience in the backcountry.  Finding the right pack with customers takes patience.  It’s a complex subject, and requires time to explain pack volume, weight, features, torso size, and more.  This is made all the more difficult by masks and the stress of maintaining social distance.

First, I like to understand what the customer needs the pack to do (How many nights? How much and what type of gear?), which is easier said than done.  It requires active listening and subtle nudging.  Once I have an understanding of their requirements and steer them away from the 100-liter clearance pack with 7 pounds of zippers, we can finally measure their torso and start trying on backpacks.

The whole process takes a long time, at least 30 minutes if we’re starting from scratch, which is more than enough time for a new wave of customers to gather around the pack-fitting table.  It is common to spend a couple hours pinned in the backpack department, loading and unloading packs, answering questions, and scrutinizing fit.  I find this to be rewarding work because I know that by helping people find the perfect backpack, I can directly improve their backcountry experience.  However, the process also leaves me drained.  There are some days that I don’t have it in me to go through the intense rigmarole.  When that is the case, I avoid the backpacks like the plague, rather than give half-hearted “expert advice.”

#4 The world is out of stuff

This sign almost put me out of a job.

 

The global supply chain is hurting.  A lot of things and stuff that people like to buy are hard to find.  You want to try a couple of bikes before buying one?  Forget it.  Did you find the perfect tent after hours of online research?  Well, we probably don’t have it in stock.  Need some fuel for that new stove that you just bought?  Haven’t seen it in months.

This is as frustrating for REI employees as it is for customers, and there’s not a thing any of us can do about it.  Planning ahead and good humor are helpful, though.

#5 People love to shop

Humans, man.  Sometimes I just don’t get my own species.  I have been and still am consistently amazed by how many people go shopping on any given day.  And that was before the pandemic.  Now I am flabbergasted.

The parking lot of the mall where my REI is located, almost always fills up, even with the pandemic raging, as it is now.  With online shopping easier, more convenient, and often cheaper than brick-and-mortar alternatives, not to mention safer, I find it shocking how many people still pour through the double doors when we are open.  We are packed on the weekends, and even the weekdays have their rushes.

However, that’s what I’m there for and it’s why I have a job.  My coworkers and I are waiting and willing to point out the camp utensils, or drop some knowledge about R-value.  And the internet can’t perform a pack fitting or size a jacket.  There are certainly legitimate reasons to shop in store during a pandemic, such as picking up a last-minute item for a trip, but I’ll never understand the customers who are “just browsing” because someone bought them a gift card.  That’s crazy.  Shopping in person not only risks one’s own health, but also that countless strangers, including we employees for whom not being there isn’t a choice.  The gift card can wait.

#6 Sale madness

Empty shelves. Even those huge isobutane canisters that are way too heavy for backpacking eventually disappeared.

During a sale is when things get really crazy.  I love a good deal as much as the next gear hound, but like I said above, I am far from understanding the urge to wander a busy store during a public health crisis.  Coming in to pick up certain items makes sense, but unfocused meandering strikes me as cavalier.  But hey, people love to shop, and people love a great deal.

#7 Most people are totally friendly

Fortunately, most customers are understanding when I explain that there aren’t any bikes in stock. Pre-pandemic, these hangers were full.

Retail employees aren’t the only ones experiencing challenges during this absolutely bonkers time to be alive.  I can confidently say as a 31-year old that there has never ever (ever) been a stranger time to be alive.  Acknowledging that, I am pleased to say that the vast majority of human (and dog) interactions that I’ve had as an REI employee have been positive.  While I haven’t always understood why people are in the store, I appreciate that they are at least friendly.

The whole reason I decided to start working at REI was to meet and welcome people to the outdoors by sharing my experience and giving sound gear advice.  I wouldn’t have made it long if I didn’t enjoy those interactions.  I love talking gear and hearing about the adventures that people have planned.  Memorable conversations come from both seen-it-all lifetimers and nervous newbies alike.  And I’ve learned from them as well.  REI has been a fun place to work, even during a pandemic.

#8 The REI Garage Sale is better than ever

After the onset of the large-gathering-smashing pandemic, the humongous Garage Sale events hosted a few times a year at REI’s across the country were replaced with permanent installations on a much smaller scale in each store.  This is an improvement that I hope sticks around.  Under the new system, on any given day someone can score a slick deal without the Black-Friday-like madness of the original events.  It’s a chill way to find great deals on good gear.

#9 Supportive management

Floor stickers directing traffic have been effective at keeping customers from getting lost, and socially distanced.

The managers at my store have been supportive of their employees and receptive to our feedback.  With no “Retail Manager’s Pandemic Rulebook” to turn to (as far as I know), their flexibility and ingenuity as they work through changing CDC and REI guidelines is commendable.  Some things have worked, like spacing out the shelving, while others are discarded or tweaked.

When employees at my store voiced concerns about allowing unmasked patrons in the store before we felt it was safe, management listened and reinstituted the universal mask policy.  When a manager noticed that I allowed customers to come within six feet of me, they encouraged me to speak up for myself and reclaim my buffer.  As an employee, I feel supported and heard.  That’s the sign of a good management team.  Ditto for my other coworkers.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier or more eclectically dressed group anywhere except for the long trails of this country.

If you made it this far, you deserve a mountain picture. This is why we do it.

As the global pandemic continues to claim lives and stretch our patience, let’s keep doing the right thing by treating one another with respect and compassion.   We’re all on the same team.

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Comments 16

  • Russ Hobgood : Aug 24th

    Hey Owen. Loved the inside look at REI. I get the mask phobias and peoples reluctance to wear one. I would consider working there part time. Having been hiking and/or backpacking for several years I have a bit of gear and trail experience. Alas, there are two nearby stores, both 40 plus miles it different directions. Thanks for the insight. The AT is calling this fall, mask or not.

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 24th

      Hey, Russ, glad you liked the article. A 40-mile commute is definitely too much, but if you do ever get a chance, working for REI is a pretty sweet gig, especially if you like talking gear. Just be prepared to eat a lot more than usual. I cover a lot of ground during an 8-hour shift and get huuuungry. Best of luck on the AT!

      Reply
  • Bill Yeadon : Aug 24th

    That was just plain outstanding. Gave me new insight. Just got my Labor Day sale flyer. I will look very thoroughly before I venture in to the store.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 24th

      Hiya, Bill, glad you liked it! Sounds like you have a great approach, and thanks for hearing what I had to say. Good luck with the sale. I hope that whatever you are looking for is in stock!

      Reply
  • Cameron Mills : Aug 26th

    Hey Owen,
    Great write up on daily life in the Co-op. I’m retired so most days I love it, recharges me but, yeah sometimes that 2nd story and the 4-7 miles walking up and down them kind of wears me out. Gonna repost on FB, hope you don’t mind. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 27th

      Thanks, Cameron. As a fellow employee, I’m glad you think I did the subject justice. Of course there is so much more. As you mentioned, just working one shift I will walk at least 4 miles, often many more. It’s a great way to kind of stay trail fit.
      Repost away! Spread the word.

      Reply
  • ThreeSpeed : Aug 27th

    Spot on my fellow REIer! Like you, started during the pandemic and love working for REI. I drank the kool-aid five minutes into my online orientation.
    I also work camping/climbing and love hearing about people’s adventures and pending trips. I especially like the newbies and reminding new members of the co-op that they “need” to come back and give a trip report!

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 29th

      Definitely, I can never stress enough that I would love to hear about how their trip went. Or how a specific piece of gear works out. That’s why I like working the rentals counter. The customers always come back and I get to ask them how it all went down.

      Reply
  • Turtle Man : Aug 27th

    I’ve never worked at REI, but have spent a considerable amount of time in our local store (in the Northeast). Usually, i have a defined reason to stop in—checking out new shoes, picking up some sundries, etc.—but, occasionally, i’m guilty of semi-aimless browsing, or just checking out the clearance/markdown racks (many good scores there over the years). Not so much during the pandemic, though, as, ironically, i’ve actually been busier with work this past year or so than pre-pandemic.

    I’ve gotten to know some of the staff well enough to learn that one of them was friends with the person who was my boss for a White Mountain National Forest work-study job the year i graduated from university (many) years ago.

    Funny how casual conversation can turn up those kinds of connections.

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 29th

      Yeah, I hear that. Most of my best interactions at REI have come from casual encounters, not even related to a specific piece of gear. Just a good conversation about a cool trip or even something totally unrelated to the outdoors.

      Reply
  • Ruth Nasrullah : Aug 28th

    From a former REI employee (pre-pandemic) – nice article! Consider yourself lucky you were on sales. Although I applied for sales, I got put on front line and it was at times a nightmare – except for the customers. They were almost always super enthusiastic and friendly, and some were going on really interesting treks (Everest base camp! I didn’t even know that was an itinerary!).

    I really appreciate your attitude toward COVID safety. We’ll never have a new normal until human behavior changes, and I’m glad you’re doing your part.

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Aug 29th

      Thanks, Ruth. I’m glad you liked the article. I too feel lucky that I skipped frontline. It would have been hard for me to stay still behind the register with so much cool stuff out there on the floor to look at. I got to mess around with a ton of cool gear and learned a lot in doing so.

      Reply
  • Katie Kommer : Sep 2nd

    Such a great article Owen 🙂 I’m so happy you’re liking it – I’m sure as heck still here!

    Reply
    • Owen Eigenbrot : Sep 14th

      Thanks, Katie. I’m glad to hear that you’re still with the Co-op (and probably still crushing trails in your free time).

      Reply

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