Thursday, March 7, 2013

REI Jacksonville Opens

REI Jacksonville
Last weekend, I traveled the two hours north on the Interstate to the new Jacksonville REI store opening with my friend Walt.  We passed the time catching each other up on what is happening in our personal lives, talking about hikes and bicycle rides and about the REI store's grand opening and the items we would be looking for.  REI was offering a free water bottle plus a gift card they were to be handing out to the first 200 people through the door daily.
We arrived about 15 minutes before the store opening, and were aghast (and pleased) at the long line outside the store, winding clear across to the West Marine store at the far other end of the strip center.  As we entered the store, we were surrounded by REI employees ringing bells (bear bells?) in their hands, welcoming us inside.  The store was packed!  It was so tight we had difficulty maneuvering through people in some of the isles to look at merchandise.  As full as it was, the store employees were always smiling and were being helpful.  After about 30 minutes of tight passageways, most of that crowd had now moved into the long checkout line, which wrapped around the store from the hiking boots section to the registers.
The REI store is laid out in a large square with high ceilings and was constructed in a similar ecological way to the western REI stores I was familiar with in Denver.  The layout starts with bicycles in front of you and to the right, with camping gear in the middle of the store. Backpacks adorn the back wall behind the camping gear section with kayaks, car racks and bicycle repair to the right rear.  Footwear covers the left rear store section, wrapping through hats to clothing which filled more than the left third of the floor space.  The travel section is in the front of the store on that left side with the registers in the middle, near the front door.  The clothing section was loaded with all the basic outdoor brands and, of course, REI's own brand.  This was easily the largest section of the store with a good variety of styles and colors.  The restrooms are to the right rear beside the community service information area.  To see store photos without the crowds, check out Sandra Friends Florida Hikes! blog here.
I was slightly disappointed the store did not have a climbing wall, since REI began business years ago by a group of American mountain climbing friends creating a co-op in order to buy climbing gear.  I was used to the Denver stores having climbing walls and there may be space to add one down the road.
REI Flash 45 Backpack
I did find all the equipment I was looking for and have made some decisions since I have now "touched" the items.  The REI Flash 45 backpack will work just fine for future week-long and through-trips backpacking.  It has two zippered pockets in the lid and the support stays seemed to transfer weight directly to the hip belt.  The "regular" size was way too small for my long body, and I would require the large size so the waist belt would actually land at my waist.  The front outside pocket is one big pocket, attached to the far sides of the pack.  It will have to be loaded a little differently than it would if it had separate side pockets.  This was something the online pictures do not show well.  The waist belt pockets were a little smaller than I thought, but they will still hold enough gear to be useful.  The next time I go to the store, I will load it up with 25 to 35 pounds weight to see how it carries on my back while loaded.  
I also liked the REI Safari Adventure Touring bicycle with it's butterfly handlebars for nearly-infinite hand positions.  This will work for loaded bicycle tours and the paved multi-use trails and local streets I ride weekly.  While the REI Randonee has been my touring choice for many years, the Safari has improved greatly in the past few years to become a really well-made touring bicycle.  It appears both bicycles use the same 520 chromoly tubing frame, though I do not know that for certain.   I also checked into new bicycle shorts and shirts that don't make me look like I just rode in from the the Tour De France.
REI Safari Adventure Touring Bicycle
From all my years of accumulating stuff, there isn't much equipment that I need anymore in the camping gear section.  I did check out the Princeton LED light and some small containers for use in the health kit.  I was disappointed they didn't have a large selection of Florida national and state park maps, but maybe they didn't come in yet.  They did have many of the 2013 maps for the Appalachian Trail plus the current AT guide, and had planning books and maps of several popular national parks around the country.  
Overall, I am very pleased REI has entered the Florida outdoor retail market.  It is much better than driving 8 hours to Atlanta, Ga to "touch" an item.  For now I will drive the 2 hours to Jacksonville to do so.  While in the checkout line, we overheard an REI employee saying that the corporate group was closely watching this store's opening, to see if there is enough demand to open more stores in Florida.  I think they will find that there is more than enough demand to open 3 or 4 more stores throughout the state.  Hopefully one of those is in central Florida real soon!

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