All 143 REI stores will be closed the day after Thanksgiving. The retail co-op wants to encourage all of us to forgo shopping on that day and spend time outside instead. ©John T. Andrews

In recent decades, the day after Thanksgiving—known as “Black Friday”—has become the biggest shopping day of the year. Although no one seems to be able to say for sure how the phrase originated, some believe it stems from the notion that it’s the day retailers finally go into the black after being in the red almost all year. And, indeed, according to the National Retail Federation, 86.9 million of us shopped in stores or online on Black Friday 2014.

That’s why it came as a bit of a shock when the outdoor gear co-op REI recently announced that it will close all 143 of its stores on Black Friday this year, giving its approximately 12,000 employees a paid day off. In addition, REI launched a campaign on its website that encourages all of us to forgo shopping on Black Friday and spend time outside instead. With the hashtag OptOutside, you are asked to share what you’re doing outdoors on that day on social media.

The company says that its store closings are meant to quell the frenzied consumerism that has come to dominate our holidays. Critics, however, say it’s merely a marketing ploy to increase the stores’ sales.

Last year, 86.9 million of us shopped on Black Friday. ©John T. Andrews

But if the tactic does get more Americans to enjoy the outdoors for even one more day, does it matter if it also helps REI’s bottom line?

 Are the closings altruistic?

Not only will its physical stores close on Black Friday, but REI won’t process any online orders until Saturday, either. While in the past other retailers, such as Costco and Nordstrom, have refused to open on Thanksgiving, to date none have given up Black Friday. Although online shoppers will still be able to purchase items from REI the day after Thanksgiving, they will initially be directed to a blackout screen urging them to explore the outdoors. REI justifies the online sales capability by saying it’s easier to leave the website on than turning it off, and only a small handful of its 12,000 employees will be on call.

Some point out, however, that REI’s Black Friday move isn’t all that altruistic. They say that the company’s revenues are already significantly higher than those of its competitors. REI is in its second year of double-digit growth; it ended 2014 with $2.2 billion in sales—three times Patagonia’s revenue and $600 million more than L.L. Bean’s.

At the OptOutside campaign on the company’s website, you can enter your zip code to find local hiking trails. ©Eric Rock

While REI will take a short-term financial hit by closing on Black Friday (historically, the day has been one of the company’s top-10 sales days of the year), the decision to close on that day will probably benefit it down the road. The response from the general public, media, professional athletes, REI members and employees has been overwhelmingly positive.

Too, as a co-op, REI is better able to handle a Black Friday closing because it doesn’t have to satisfy shareholders. In a cooperative, profits are treated as a surplus and are redistributed to members or reinvested in the business. REI’s members—more than 5.5 million of them—pay a one-time $20 fee to join. In return, they receive discounts on classes and trips the company offers, have access to a credit card that gives money back on spending and receive a dividend each year that’s equal to 10 percent of the purchases made on full-priced items. Last year, REI paid out $123 million in dividends, credits members must use within two years on REI merchandise.

The smack of a marketing stunt?

Feeding the criticism that REI’s Black Friday closings are merely a stunt to actually improve the company’s holiday sales by emphasizing its co-op status and do-goodism is the fact that on the same day the company made its announcement, it launched a new logo that includes the word co-op for the first time since 1983. And last year, it also rolled out an in-store line of apparel called REI Co-Op.

After hearing about the REI campaign, will you enjoy the outdoors or go shopping on Black Friday? ©John T. Andrews

Some believe that an act is not altruistic if it helps you or serves your best interests in the long run. But isn’t that what altruism is: helping others in the hope that they may come to your aid or consider you kindly in the future?

Do you support REI’s day-after-Thanksgiving closings? Has the company inspired you to enjoy the outdoors rather than go shopping on Black Friday?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,