Last week, as I was preparing to summit Broken Top with David, Jake, Josh, Jesse, and our fearless leader, Marci, I decided it was time to buy a new backpack. Now we’re not talking about the kind of backpack you can pick up at Staples or Fred Meyers for $19.99. I wanted a 30 L pack with an internal frame that weighed less than 4 pounds and actually fit my 5’ 6” frame. I’ve been making do with my boyfriend’s old pack, which is too big for me, full of holes, and literally tied together because some of the webbing and buckles are broken, but we were heading out on a BIG adventure, so I felt I could justify the big purchase. If I’m going to carry a pack for 11 hours, I want it to be a comfortable pack. I’ve also recently been accepted into the Oregon Humane Society’s technical animal rescue team (OHSTAR), so I am in the market for all kinds of specialized gear like locking carabiners, an ATC, and a rock climbing helmet. In other words, I am a dream-come-true for any outdoor gear shop salesperson.

I’m a big fan of shopping online, but when it comes to a pack, I want to try it on and make sure it fits. I considered shopping at Portland’s local outdoor store- because who doesn’t like to shop local?- but they close at 7pm on week nights (and 6pm on weekends?!), and REI is open until 9pm, and it was already 6:30pm, so I head downtown. For those of you keeping track at home, the score is now REI- 1, competition- 0.

When I get to REI, I make a beeline for the backpacks, determined not to be distracted by freeze dried ice cream, cute rain boots, or this seasons’ new mug/compass/emergencyblanket/flashlight multi-tool. I am on a mission.

I try on several packs- stuffing them with pillows, piling weights inside, and trudging around the store, trying not to make eye contact with a hot pink windbreaker that’s whispering my name until I find THE ONE. This is it. The pack I desperately need. It’s $49 more than I wanted to spend, but I’m sure it will be worth every penny. I think. Probably. But, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to double check that nobody else sells it for cheaper, right? I mean, why do I have a smartphone if not for comparison shopping?

I try to be discreet. I sneak off into a corner by a huge rack of messenger bags and pull out my cell phone. I silently cheer on the WiFi connection at REI, wishing it would hurry up and show me their competitors’ pricing already. I pretend to be carefully examining the inside pocket of a laptop case when a salesperson wanders too close. I feel a little bad. I am one of those showroomers that every brick and mortar store owner hates. I’ve read countless articles about how to discourage shoppers like me from this very behavior.

But here’s the thing. Yes, I showroom-ed. Yes, I wanted to know for a fact that I was getting the best deal possible. But did I buy my new pack from one of REI’s competitors on my smartphone? No. I bought it from REI. And here’s why:

  1. I trust REI. REI did not have the cheapest price. Their pricing was exactly the same as 5 other retailers, and cheaper than two other shops, but it wasn’t the cheapest. I could have bought it for $20 less from a tiny e-commerce site I’d never heard of. But I decided to pay more to buy from a retailer I know and trust. I’ll give the competition a half a point since someone did have it cheaper, but they don’t get the full point because I didn’t want to shop with them.
  2. I could get it tonight. I didn’t have to wait for shipping. I wasn’t stuck between an indoor rock wall and a hard place, forced to decide if I wanted to keep my fingers crossed it would arrive in time for our hike on Sunday or pay a small fortune for 2 day express shipping. I could walk out of the store with my pack on my back.
  3. REI has the BEST return policy. They guarantee 100% satisfaction. If I hiked 11 hours with that pack- up Broken Top and back down to the car- and I discovered it didn’t really fit or that it rubbed my shoulders the wrong way, I could take it back. No questions asked. I think of this as the Cheryl Strayed return policy. It was definitely a deciding factor in my REI purchase. We’re up to REI-4, competitors- .5
  4. My boyfriend is an REI Member. REI has an old-school style loyalty program, but it works. Because he paid $20 for a lifetime REI membership 8 years ago, he gets 10% back annually on all the purchases he makes each year at REI. The kind cashier let him use his Membership on my purchase too, and now my boyfriend owes me dinner because he’ll get 10% back on my backpack at the end of the year.

Final score= REI- 5, competitors- .5.

In the end, I didn’t need the cheapest pricing to seal the deal; I needed to know that I wasn’t getting ripped off. By checking my smartphone, I felt confident that REI’s pricing was competitive and their return policy, loyalty program, and the instant gratification made me feel good about my purchase. Good job, REI.

It’s the little things that matter to shoppers- and that are going to set you apart from your competition when you’re all basically offering the same product for the same price. Loyalty programs, military or teacher discounts, new customer coupons, great customer service, free shipping for students, these conveniences and perks all add up to create an overall customer experience that inspires brand confidence and brand loyalty. And that’s real secret to wooing showroomers like me.