I've been to many of the stores that the OP mentioned above.
Just to add a my two cents...
I was impressed with the staff at Next Adventure, and even more so at The Mountain Shop. At the latter, I chatted with one of the staff members and found out that he had actually used some of the gear I was looking at on his 2012 PCT thru-hike.
It was a breath of fresh air to be able to get real world insights from a staff member who had actually pushed gear to its limits and had insightful gear-related critiques and complements to share in return.
I can't tell you how many times I've gone to REI and been "helped" by an employee who knew much, much less about the product at hand than I did. I try and avoid the attention of the army of green-vested REI goons at all costs. To be fair, I have met some really knowledgeable people in REI, but they seem to be few and far between. Also, I don't think that BPL forum members are very representative of the average REI customer, and in following, I don't think a big chain like REI is really in business to cater to people like us, so my experiences in there aren't exactly surprising. Ok, I'll stop ranting now.
Also, as mentioned above, Next Adventure carries ULA packs, and The Mountain Shop carries Six Moon Designs products (among other things), so these smaller outdoor shops are a great place to buy things that you will never find at the larger outdoor gear chains like REI.