A banner at an REI store touts the retailer’s plan to close on Black Friday. (Courtesy REI)

While many retailers will be trying desperately to get you to the mall on Black Friday, REI has a different message for shoppers: Stay away.

The outdoor goods chain announced Monday that it will be closed on Black Friday this year and is encouraging would-be shoppers to instead use the day to get outside. The retailer also pledged that it would pay its 12,000 employees for the day, even though they are being told not to report to work.

“Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside,” Jerry Stritzke, the chief executive of REI, said in a press release.

Plenty of retailers have pulled out of the Thanksgiving Day shopping fray in recent years to telegraph a feel-good message about their brand. Earlier this month, Staples said it would close on Thanksgiving Day, something it did not do last year, in order to give workers and shoppers the chance to “enjoy Thanksgiving their own way.”  Last year, retailers such as Costco, Gamestop, T.J. Maxx and dozens of other stores shuttered their doors on Thanksgiving.

But it appears that REI’s move to close its 143 stores on Black Friday has few, if any, precedents for a major retail chain.

“The reality is, there are plenty of days to shop for the holidays,” said Tim Spangler, REI’s senior vice president of retail. “We felt like taking a break on one of the busiest days of the year sent a really clear message about what matters most.”

Steven Kirn, executive director of the University of Florida’s retail education and research center, said REI’s strategy is likely to appeal to members of its co-op, the shoppers who pay a onetime $20 fee to share in the company’s profits.

“I think they’re targeting a message to those particular customers, one that the customers will find very appealing and will probably make them feel even more closely bonded to the company,” Kirn said. 

REI has ginned up a hashtag for the campaign, #optoutside, and is inviting shoppers to share photos of their Black Friday hiking, biking and other excursions on social media. The retailer has also built a Web page offering suggestions for activities people might do instead of hitting the stores. REI’s Web site will still be available on Thanksgiving, but it will feature a “black takeover screen” encouraging shoppers to put down their gadgets and hit the great outdoors. Online shoppers will be able to click through from there to make purchases if they choose to, but those orders will not be processed until Saturday.

While REI’s move may be surprising, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much of a financial gamble it is.  The retailer says Black Friday is typically one of its top ten sales days each year. However, the importance of Black Friday generally has diminished in recent years as many stores have gotten an early jump on their big sales, offering deals several days or even weeks before the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Plus, with big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy and Toys ‘R Us moving their promotional kickoffs to Thanksgiving Day, many deal hunters have moved their store shopping trips to Thursday instead of Friday. And finally, as more of our shopping dollars move online, Cyber Monday sales have proved a big draw for holiday shoppers.

Last year, the National Retail Federation reported that 55.1 percent of consumers shopped between Thursday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, a decline from the 58.7 percent who did so the previous year. The trade group chalked the decline up to a change in consumer attitudes: Shoppers expect there will be good deals throughout November and December, and so it just doesn’t seem as urgent to hit the stores or shop on their tablets over the holiday weekend.

Kirn said there may even be upside for REI when it comes to profit margins: If they’re not trying to cut through the Black Friday noise to entice shoppers, they might not have to offer especially steep discounts.