Rating: 5 / 5
I'm partial too, though not from Seattle.
Growing up in Atlanta there are not many places to go within the city that can excite you about the outdoors, but whenever the parents told me we were going to REI, I knew a greater adventure was in store.
I echo all of the positives of other posters. Customer service, dividend, coupon, etc. I have had hits and misses with the staff, but I think REI has too, and when they've had a miss, that staff member disappears, and goes unmissed. The people that have been around for years have helped me learn about the backstory of backpacking, differents methods and techniques for the backcountry, and different systems of gear. They have helped me find some of my favorite spots to backpack in the southeast, and I have never been swindled. I do worry that things are shifting more heavily towards profit, but I offer two anecdotes to give greater context for the concern.
A friend of mine had had the same pair of hiking boots, bought from REI, for 4 or 5 years. The tread was well worn and she'd been many miles in them. The trouble was she had only ever taken at most 3 night trips in them, and at the end of each and every one of those trips she had developed tendonitis in her achilles (swelling, pain, etc), with the onset beginning as little as one day in. She just thought this was part of hiking. She tried to return them when I pointed out that boots shouldn't do that and was rebuffed by a young sales representative who didn't say they wouldn't take them but made her feel sufficiently guilty (you've had them for 4 or 5, etc) to leave. Do you think they should have taken the boots? I am not sure.
What I do know if that I have been practically commanded by a sales rep to return something. I was at REI trying on boots to replace my previous hiking boots (pre-BPL days) and mentioned to the sales rep (who had worked there for a decade or more) that the boots had caused circulation problems in my feet after a day of hiking, but that the problem would go away over night. The rep told me to return them. I didn't think this was a serious problem of the boots and I thought that it certainly was in the realm of reasonable problems to have after a day of hiking, but the guy insisted that I should return them. He said that the policy is to keep the costumer satisfied, no questions asked. When I protested, he said that a guy who had bent a kayak in half came to return it and they accepted it, no questions asked, so I should be able to return my boots.
I think this represents the position of the older generation, or the generation of REI staff with more years under their hipbelts. It is representative of a professional integrity that makes me want to go back to REI even after discovering MLD, ULA, GG, BPL, etc, because I know I won't be screwed with. THat isn't to say that there isn't misinformation or traditional backpacking dogma, but I prefer to think it is without malice. The trouble with such integrity is that it does open the company up to exploitative customers, but it is all the more impressive that they maintain the policy in spite of that. I'm sure people have been exploiting the policy since the REI Co-op was started and the fact that they haven't changed the policy as a result convinces me of their integrity.
However, I am worried about a shift towards profit, as indicated in the unpleasentness of the younger sales rep with my friend. Maybe that was a justified response or an isolated incident, I do not know, but I hope for great things from REI as they've become lighter over the years.