Monday, December 5, 2016

REI and Online Customer Experience WTF in 3D

For many years, REI has been a business that held a special relationship for me. There were no Recreational Equipment Inc. stores in the south when I moved back out here from Tennessee way back in 1991. REI was a welcome friend to so many awesome aspects of the California experience -- hiking and camping gear, rain and snow gear, rock climbing shoes, and pretty much anything in between. It quickly became my go-to resource for all of my activities here, enabling me to go where the climate suits my clothes.

Among friends over the years, we've often found ourselves in discussions and debates about whether the REI of today is as good as the REI of yesteryear. From discussions with touring cyclists as to whether the REI rain gear was as good as the older Goretex gear from the previous generation of REI rain gear, to musings about the changing nature of the store as fashion seemed to be an increasing emphasis rather than gear.

Myself, I've been a member of REI since 1992 and over the years, I've bought a fair amount of stuff from them. REI has held such a significant role in my life that, often, if there was something that REI carried, I would buy it from them, even if it was slightly cheaper somewhere else. A lot of things figured into this calculation, such as the annual dividend as a discount, and REI's strong return policy. In the old days, there are stories of people returning gear after months and years. In looking at the specifics of their return policy now, that rock-solid guarantee has been reduced to something like a one year warranty. Problems with your REI gear? Good luck with that... Of course, I've never had to return anything I've bought from REI, but the belief that they have a strong return policy is probably a widespread belief. They even referenced REI returns in that Reese Witherspoon movie, Wild.

REI Delivers a Series of Failures
Recently, we'd been in the market for a jogging stroller. We just missed an opportunity to one of the top-rated ones from Target as they were closing out a previous model year. We actually could have probably gotten one, but we decided to visit our local REI store and check them out before we purchased. Suitably impressed, we ran around to various Target locations, but all of the discounted strollers were gone. After more research and study, we decided we would probably just go ahead and purchase the stroller from REI as soon as one of their periodic 20% off one full priced item sales took place. Sure enough, in the weeks before Thanksgiving, REI offered the 20% discount, so after waiting several weeks, we decided to move forward with our purchase.

The first surprise was that while REI used to carry the BOB Flex, they had stopped carrying that model and now only carried the Pro model, about $70 more expensive than the Flex. The Pro model includes a hand-brake, something many online reviews say is somewhat unnecessary. It also ways about 5 pounds more, something we really felt like we didn't need. After discovering this, we took a step back and reviewed all of the different options for jogging strollers. Ultimately, what we decided was that we would go with REI because of our long relationship with the brand, their strong return policy, and because my unused dividend benefit would provide some additional discount on the purchase.

On November 17th, I finally placed the order. We were anxious to pick up the stroller and would have loved to pick it up at one of REI's retail locations, but despite having four REIs in the area, the stroller was unavailable in all of them. They were gone from the Saratoga store where we'd previously looked at them. Our only choice was to order for in-store pick-up. But forget about Amazone Prime or other fast delivery services that you might expect, REI's initial estimate was that the unit would be available for pick-up on Sunday, November 27th.

My gut told me that this date was suspect. One week later -- typical ground shipping would have been Thanksgiviving Thursday, the 24th. Why they couldn't ship product to one of their locations in less than a week was a bit puzzling, but assuming that the timeline was tight -- REI had already published that they would be closed on Black Friday, so assuming a Saturday delivery, Sunday seemed possible, but unlikely.

So as the week or so of waiting went on, I decided to check with REI customer service, since I hadn't received any specific confirmation about pick-up times. Unfortunately, what I discovered during my chat with customer service was that REI had screwed up the order. They reprocessed it, and now my expected delivery date was scheduled for December 4th. As a courtesy, they sent me a $20 REI gift card.

Of course, while they were busy screwing up my order and being closed, Amazon featured the BOB strollers on a black Friday deal for less than we were paying REI (since they offered the Flex that we actually wanted and the Pro for the same discounted price that we got through REI). Instead, thanks to REI, we got to wait an extra week.

Still feeling frustrated with REI, I decided to contact their online chat Customer Support a second time on Friday, Dec. 2. After chatting with the customer service rep and relaying my frustration, his only response was,
REI Customer Service Rep: Occasionally an order may be delayed in our system, entirely our fault. But we would certainly hope our members and customers can understand that we are doing the best we can. When possible we do try to upgrade shipping or make things right.
REI Customer Service Rep: Occasionally these types of errors cannot be helped. Is there something particular regarding your order that I can help you with now?
In short, "bummer for you".

So Sunday, December 4th came, and we decided to head over to the REI store to pick up the stroller. My expectation was that there would be no stroller there since REI's order confirmation says something about expecting an email when the stroller finally arrives, but I thought it was worth a try since they'd given me that date.

What I learned in the store was that, no, the stroller wasn't there and that there was no way the stroller could have been there on the date promised since the store only received shipments on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In short, REI's own system was making promises and writing checks that it's ass couldn't cash.

This isn't my first frustration with REI this year. Earlier, I went there trying to replace my Teva sandals, something that I'd been resisting doing for a long time. Imagine my surprise when my go-to gear store suddenly didn't have ANY Teva sandals. I wound up replacing my Teva's at Sports Basement.

REI has destroyed their brand loyalty with me
While I'm sure that I will continue to purchase things from REI -- it is one of the only places where some of this gear is available -- the business is no longer my preferred supplier. In a couple of moves, they have eroded all credibility with me. I wish that I could point to a specific reason or mark it as a trend, but I don't have anything like that. This is just one anecdote, but based on my recent experiences, I would advise Caveat Emptor.

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