My Novara Randonee has been excellent; it's my workhorse commuter and gets lots of miles. The frames come off various Asian production lines (I've been told that the Randonee is made in a Giant factory in Taiwan, but I don't know for sure) but that's beside the point; REI has its own designers and their frames are their own.
REI bike departments are reported to vary; the one nearest me -- Conshohocken PA -- has a very good reputation, and a master wheelbuilder on staff (which I consider to be a "true test" of any bike shop).
The Labor Day sale is a good opportunity to find deals, although the stores tend to run out of the most common sizes. One strategy is to shop earlier in August and pay full price, then go back during the sale and use REI's price guarantee to get a refund of the difference. I did exactly that when I bought my Randonee, and got the last "medium" frame available in 2001.
Training: 2002 Fuji Roubaix Pro (105 triple)
Commuting/Daytripping: 2001 Airborne Carpe Diem (Ultegra/XTR, touring wheels)
Commuting/Touring: 2000 Novara Randonee (Sora/Tiagra/LX, fenders, lights)