I hope this is my last post on this. :)
Yes, you can have a say in how the REI business is run. Members do get to vote for members of the Board of Directors. Or at least they used to. I don't buy much there anymore (except this year as a Xmas present for my son), and when I get a dividend, I throw everything else away and don't read what's in the envelope; and just redeem it. Oh, and that is a hook. Use or lose it (edit: acutally you can get a check, but I suspect most checks are so small, many forget to redeem it by the deadline). So people end up buying more stuff, and often stuff they don't really need. But they make these choices of their own free will. REI is not forcing anyone to buy a members, purchase their goods, or partipate in their co-op.
Futhermore, philisophically I am not a fan of Co-ops or collectivism.
What about REI's contributions to environmental and social issues? For some folks that is important. For those reading this post, and feel that 'socially responsible' companies are best... then REI might be your first choice to buy gear. That extra money might be supporting the programs you feel are the right thing to do. In that case, perhaps it is in your best interest to buy products from them. But that mindset does not define me.
REI was created in 1938, because gear was hard to find, and the co-op made it easier to obtain gear and leverage some buying power. This is a critical point... it was, and remains a co-op.
When I started backpacking, the only place you could get gear was at sporting goods stores, Army-Navy Surplus stores, REI and Campmor catalogs, and a few speciality stores that were never close to where you lived. REI filled a need for me, and I guess I have developed some loyalty to them. But now I shop via Internet, which pretty much excludes them due to price and a choice. For what I want and need, the cottage industry best fulfills that.
In 2007, REI had $1.3 billion in sales. That is not a big company, by today's standards. Their net profit was 3% of sales, not stellar. Without the dividends, it would have been 9%... which is reasonable. However, without the membership factor, they probably would have done a lot less in sales... and probably would not be in business at all.
The great thing about all of this, is that we can buy gear wherever we want. So if we don't like REI or WalMart or whoever, then we can go elsewhere. If you don't like REI or the way they run their business, then don't patronize them. I ocassionally buy from REI. But on the other hand, I wouldn't put a foot into WalMart, even if they were giving their stuff away. Just a personal choice, and not something I need to crusade about.
Freedom of choice!! Isn't it wonderful? :)