^^^Mail order =/= "there." 800-xxx-xxx is not brick & mortar. Online is different from face-to-face. But if you guys like REI and don't think big box experience is less than a local shop and takes away from the local economy, then who am I to say it sucks? Enjoy your "co-op."
You act as if it's one or the other. The reason the 'Wal-Mart/Home Depot' big box argument just isn't relevant to REI is because there simply aren't that many of them. There is still plenty of market for smaller guys to slide into. Utah has exactly two REIs in the entire state, both fairly close to each other. You can go ahead and do a tally of how many smaller shops it has.
Here, I'll even start for you: There isn't a single REI north of SLC, but there is a brand-new local outdoor shop that opened in Ogden a few months back. There's also a Recreation Outlet, a local UT chain, and plenty of local ski/snowboard shops, one of which was new this season, bike shops, etc. There also isn't an REI south of Sandy, which puts a ton of outdoor country, including places like Moab and St. George, outside of REI's territory. Think you can find a few gear shops in that part of the state?
Personally, I go to REI on a rainy day when I have some money burning a hole in my pocket but am not looking for anything specific - it's nice to have a huge selection of bike/ski/hike/camp/apparel/etc. to browse in that case. But why the hell would I drive an hour when I know exactly what I need and can find it at a local shop?
Until REI starts showing up in every single city - or even just every single 30-minute radius of mountain country - calling it a big box giant that's putting all the little guys under is just stupid.
And, in some cases, the big box store ends up failing before the little guy. Circuit City went out of business years ago, and Best Buy looks like it could be next. But you can still find plenty of small, independent hi-fi shops doing business. I bought my stereo system about nine years ago at the place my father recommended from back in the early 80s and it's still around today. How many "big box" electronic stores have come and gone since then (the best being Crazy Eddie's and his "insane" prices/market scams). That same type of niche specialization is relevant to ski and mountain stores - REI can't really touch it.
Alright, I better shut about this before the OP comes and razzes us with a skiing video from two months ago