What I Learned Working at REI

I try to read the Sunday New York Times every weekend. Not easy to do when you’ve got busy kids, a dog that needs exercising and a weekend “to do” list. But last Sunday, I managed to carve out some good reading time and the article Pearls of Career Wisdom, Found in the Trash got me thinking.

In the piece, Michael Cascio, a former exec at the National Geographic Channel, A&E and Animal Planet, writes about what he learned working as a janitor at Wolf Trap, a performing arts venue in Virginia. While working in “the bottom rung of show business” he learned about the importance of showing up on time, appreciating your co-workers and understanding the work hierarchy.

I especially loved this reflection, “Even now, when handling a garbage bag, I create a strong bond by making two handles from the sides and tying them together in a knot at the top. After that, almost nothing can fall out of the bag.”

Two thoughts came to mind after reading this: 1. Does he really take out his own garbage? and 2. Husbands, take note of that technique!!

Since reading Cascio’s article, I’ve thought a lot about my first job and what I learned.

In high school, to pay for my car insurance and gas money, I worked at the REI store in Berkeley. It was the second REI store to open and thus its internal store code was 02. When I moved to Seattle to go to the University of Washington, I got a job working at store 01 – the “mother ship”. I felt like I was moving up in the REI universe! At the time, there were about a dozen stores. Now, there are over 40.

This was before REI moved into its current hip flagship store with the 3-story rock climbing wall and outdoor bike paths. Old time Seattelites stillremember the original REI that occupied an old building on Pike St and 11th. Previously a car dealership, broad ramps connected the floors and there was no modern HVAC system. We employees learned to dress in layers.

During my time at both stores, I worked in Shoes, Books and Clothing departments. We had to wear green vests with lots of pockets for pens, transfer slips and membership forms. Wearing the green vest meant you were an expert and easy for customers to spot when they had questions.

For those of you who’ve worked retail, you know its hard work. You have to be customer service oriented which means you have to actually be nice to people - hoards of them - who you don’t know and likely won’t see again. You have to understand their needs, size them correctly, find the right shoe/boot/sandle, fit them and help them to make a decision. Then when you’re done, you clean up and move onto the next person.

Just as important as the customer service, you have to know the technical spec of outdoor gear. From Vibram soles, to Gore-tex liners to the best guidebooks for hiking the PCT, you have to know your stuff.

I would come home exhausted, my legs and back aching only to get up and do it again the next evening.

Working at REI, I learned quickly that I was never going to know and understand every product in my department. It would have taken years and an encyclopedic-sized memory. Once I realized this, I looked for the next best resource. And that turned out to be my fellow green vesters.

On the floor, I would eavesdrop on my co-workers while they helped customers to learn more about the products. When I had a customer who needed more help than I could provide, I’d ask a more knowledgeable co-worker for an assist and take mental notes. In the process, I became a better sales person and customers trusted me more because I wasn’t making stuff up. (Note to youngsters working at REI: making stuff up is not a good strategy. Selling someone a waterproof jacket that is anything but waterproof doesn’t go over to well in our climate.)

When you’re new in the workforce, it’s hard to admit to co-workers you don’t know something. It’s even harder when you’re older and you’re doing something new for the first time – like start a kids bedding company.

In the two and a half years it took me to develop Hair Fairy from an idea to reality, I tapped a lot of people for help. A lot.

The most helpful group? Colleagues from my previous jobs. Thank you LinkedIn!!

I’ve been lucky to work at some great places with smart people so when I hit a wall and got stuck, I’d think, “Who might know how to do this?” and then I’d get on the phone or shoot of an email and offer them lunch or a cup of coffee.

Every time I asked for help, I got answers or an introduction to someone even more knowledgeable. No one, NOT ONCE, turned me down. From asking about manufacturing and importing, to reviewing my business plan financials to proof reading my website, all of my work was touched by a network of colleagues.

Now undoubtabley I’d finish most conversations slightly panicked realizing the more I learned, the less I knew (definitely a good topic for another blog post some day) but without my network and the drive to mine it, Hair Fairy wouldn’t exist today and I’d still be dreaming about the satin pillow case and doll I “someday” wanted to create and sell.

Thank you Cascio for your humble reflections. It’s comforting to know people in high places started out scrubbing toilets and taking out the trash.

And thank you REI for hiring me way back when.

And deep gratitude to my network that helped me scale this mountain one step at a time. You are all green vesters to me!

Old Seattle REI on Capitol Hill. 

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