Summer 2020


REI Forges an Uncommon Path

By Greg Scruggs Courtesy of REI

Winter-sports junkies salivate over catalogs detailing the latest in the ski industry. How much sidecut is now considered the perfect amount to carve the best powder turns? Which snow pants offer the best combination of waterproofing and breathability? What color of goggle lens claims to offer the best visibility in flat light? Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI, the nation’s

largest consumer co-op, has long fueled that frenzy. Every fall, its 162 locations swap out the bikes and kayaks from the front of the store in order to showcase skis and snowboards. The same typically held true for its quarterly print catalogs. But select REI members are now seeing an

entirely different printed product in their mailboxes each quarter. Uncommon Path is an 80-odd- page bona fide magazine with a mixture of

content and media director, Paolo Mottola. “We are an organization that cares about the health of the outdoors and people spending more time outside. In that bigger picture, a magazine made a lot of sense to us.” The change was more gradual than a sudden

switch. Mottola readily admits that REI’s catalog had been incorporating more and more editorial content for years, a trend common to many retailers. With the average American spending 95 percent of their life indoors, Mottola saw the magazine as an innovative way to spark change. “A magazine is a different kind of format to help people understand the issues, ideas, and events that challenge life outdoors,” he says. “For all those reasons, it just made sense to migrate that catalog product. The magazine still has a lot of product in it;

REI partnered with Hearst to produce the

magazine and sell ads, which Hearst convinced REI would be key to giving the magazine legitimacy. The ads also help reinforce REI’s company values, such as promoting diversity in the outdoors. For example, a one-page ad for hiking-boot manufacturer Merrell spotlights Will “Akuna” Robinson, the first African American male to complete hiking’s so-called Triple Crown: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, a combined 8,000 miles. The result is a 700,000-issue print run, which

narrowly makes Uncommon Path the largest outdoor magazine in the country. (The Alliance for Audited Media reported in June that Outside’s total circulation is 697,021.) REI sells 50,000 copies of Uncommon Path on

“ The magazine still has a lot of product in it; we just have more of an editorial mix and a lot more editorial volume than what our catalog had before.”

environmental reporting, seasonal travel highlights, athlete profiles, and outdoor-trend stories. Yes, some gear reviews are mixed in, but that typical catalog fodder is few and far between. For example, the Winter 2020 issue devotes

just five pages to the best skis of 2020. Instead, the bulk of the magazine reports on climate adaptation in Charleston, features an all-ladies Rollerblading club in Park City, profiles a Brooklyn small-business owner and avid runner, and spotlights a taco stand inside a roving snowcat at the Steamboat Springs ski resort. Only one of those four stories is explicitly about the winter-sports industry, but the mix is meant to drive reader interest among those with a passion for the outdoors.

“REI has been in the catalog business since its inception more than 80 years ago,” says REI’s

we just have more of an editorial mix and a lot more editorial volume than what our catalog had before.” The magazine format experiments with

both direct and indirect product placement. For example, a three-quarter-page Q&A on “What’s the best way to start my kids on the slopes this winter?” with a professional ski instructor rounds out the bottom-quarter page with five catalog- style entries on ski products for kids, with capsule reviews and prices. More obliquely, the magazine features a four-page photo essay, “Cabin Fever,” of starkly beautiful photos of Canadian ice fishing cabins. Dozens of pages later, a two-page spread on layering suggests products for low-intensity winter activities—ice fishing among them. No explicit connection is made, but the reader may subconsciously connect the dots.

newsstands alongside other Hearst-produced branded magazines, such as Airbnb Magazine, a travel magazine from short-term rental platform Airbnb. REI mails 450,000 copies to a select number of their 17 million members, chosen through factors such as tenure with the co-op and geography. Mottola says a customer’s annual spending with the company is not a decision factor. The final 200,000 copies are mailed to subscribers of other Hearst magazines. Future distribution models are unknown at this time, but Mottola says, “Everything is on the table—from digital to subscription.” “We want to get this into the hands of more people who want it,” he says. 

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