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REI cuts 275 retail jobs in bid to restructure brick-and-mortar stores

The interior of the REI flagship store in Seattle. The company is trying to change its brick-and-mortar business model. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Seattle-founded REI cut 275 retail jobs, including 19 in Washington, as part of a broader plan to restructure stores. The layoffs affect 2% of the outdoor retailer’s workforce nationally.

The decision comes as the company is trying to change its brick-and-mortar business model said Mary-Farrell Tarbox, REI vice president of stores, in a memo to employees last week.

“Our current operating model for stores is more than a decade old,” Tarbox said. “There are many areas that are out of date and no longer serving our employees or REI’s mission and business.”

REI employs 969 people at 11 stores in Washington. The flagship store in South Lake Union had five layoffs, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents workers in some REI stores, not including the flagship store.

The cuts affect employees in “lead” positions, which the memo describes as the most inconsistent role. According to an old job listing, a sales lead is responsible for driving sales by “improving selling behaviors.”

Not all employees in lead roles will be laid off, as most will transition to other positions in the company, Tarbox said.

Tarbox added that while REI is cutting the lead roles, the company will have nearly 1,300 openings for new roles and holiday hiring through the rest of the year.

One of the laid-off lead workers is Will Kushner, who had been a shipping and receiving lead at the flagship store for more than a year. He worked at REI for a total of four years.

Kushner said in an interview Friday that there was no clarity on what his role meant, so he supported different departments in the store with inventory management. His lead position had more responsibilities than the job description had provided, Kushner said, so he agrees with the argument that there was inconsistency. But instead of providing clarity, he said, the company decided to cut the positions.

“I was trying to manage inventory for a flagship store within a multimillion-dollar company,” Kushner said. “I was just under-recognized and under-utilized in the role I was hired for. And I think it’s just because the direction of the company doesn’t really want to put an emphasis or focus on their inventory management.”

Besides the layoffs, Tarbox said REI will increase scheduling transparency and hour predictability, updated store roles and new store leadership and staffing models.

Some REI workers across the U.S. have been organizing a movement to unionize. Workers at eight stores have voted for union representation. The latest store where workers won elections and joined the UFCW Local 3000 was in Bellingham in June. It was the first store in Washington to have unionized.

There were no layoffs at the Bellingham store, according to UFCW. In a statement, a union spokesperson said REI imposed the changes without negotiating with the union and is laying off tenured staff to cut labor costs. The spokesperson said lead positions were cut at some unionized stores, but the union doesn’t have all the numbers yet.

“REI’s nationwide layoff is a crushing blow to workers who have spent their careers building the REI brand into what it is today,” the spokesperson said.

Tarbox, who has been the vice president of stores for about a year, according to her LinkedIn profile, said a transition is necessary to set the retailer up for long-term success.

“These changes will give us the flexibility needed to support our business, provide enhanced hours predictability for most staff, improve accountability at all levels, ensure we’re investing the right number of hours into the right roles,” she said in the Thursday memo.

Kushner said he had already started job hunting before the layoffs as he felt no career growth in his role.

“I’ve noticed just a transition over the years of caring more about the public image or the sales,” he said. “That’s clearly not what REI is intended for nor is it supposed to be focused on. It’s supposed to be team-oriented.”


© 2023 The Seattle Times

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