>They got smart a few years back and require a receipt, either physically or one they can >look up in their computer database (aka you need to know the approx month and year >of the purchase).
Not if you're a member. They can look up your purchase history and verify that you really did buy the item from them.
My dividend paid for a pair of Keen lightweight hiking shoes. I've gotten quite a few good deals on some pretty nice gear from REI over the years, including a Vargo titanium stove, and some Ibex wool base and mid layers.
REI also supports local conservation organizations here in Washington.
And their staff don't get commissions -- they're not paid to sell you stuff, they're paid to provide customer service. Not all of them are good at it, but they do try -- I *have* encountered REI staff with less knowledge than me, but it's been the exception rather than the rule.
Personally, I think the REI bashers are for the most part small-minded fools -- REI does sell a lot of stuff that's oriented toward base camping and fashion rather than backpacking or lightweight (let alone ultralight) backpacking, but they also sell Nemo tents, including the trekking-pole supported Meta. REI has to make money, so they sell stuff that people will buy... and that means that most of their stuff is cycling, kayaking, and fashionable toys for yuppy car campers, but as ultralight backpacking gets more popular, REI's selection of ultralight gear is improving (Vargo titanium alcohol stoves, for example).
REI isn't perfect, but you *can* get a lot of good gear from them, provided that you know what you're after and that you ask the right questions.