Abstract: A Consumers' Wilderness: REI, the Catalog Industry, and Direct Marketing, 1960-1985

Richard Popp


The market for outdoor recreation equipment and apparel—backpacks, hiking boots, puffy vests, and other bits of gear—boomed like never before in late 1960s and 1970s America. Among the biggest names in this growing field was Recreational Equipment Inc.—a Seattle "co-op" and cataloger that specialized in climbing and backpacking gear. This paper explores the changing nature of specialty marketing in consumer culture between the late 1960s and early 1980s through the lens of REI. While the "co-op's" not-for-profit model undoubtedly makes it a unique case, REI was nevertheless emblematic of a shifting commercial culture that increasingly capitalized on notions of lifestyle, cultural identity, and technological connoisseurship among consumers. REI's rapid growth reflected a number of trends in 1970s consumerism, including a boom in outdoor recreation and the gradual mainstreaming of subcultural leisure pursuits. Moreover, it was shaped by the piqued ecological consciousness and anti-urbanism of the era. Just as crucially, though, REI's development reflected the changing political economy and logistical structures of specialty retailing and selling at a distance.