Retail’s nature-loving outdoor brands ?seek e-commerce balance

The North Face
34 US stores
Launched e-commerce in 2008 

27 US stores
Launched e-commerce in 1997 

Choosing to ignore the digital aspects of direct marketing will likely earn your brand the consumers’ collective cold shoulder. Just ask The North Face and Patagonia — two outdoor apparel retailers with distinct customer approaches that effectively blend e-commerce efforts with catalog mailings. ?

Patagonia, however, appears to use its e-commerce site more ?effectively to interact with and serve brand enthusiasts than to drive sales. The company goes out of its way to advertise its environmentalism via its “The Cleanest Line” blog and “Our Common Waters” activism campaign, a tactic which clearly positions the brand to ?appeal to the environmentally-aware consumer. Enthusiasm on the site is evident; user-generated reviews run aplenty and each product has its own dedicated Quora-like question-and-answer section where ?consumers interact.?

Should a customer find a product without user-generated feedback, a Patagonia live chat operator will ask if he can help within minutes. Unfortunately, the sales push on the site is inferior to the branding effort. For example, Patagonia jams 48 small images of jackets onto the jackets landing page. As a result, none stand out. ?

North Face, on the other hand, only lists nine jackets on its jackets’ Web page, with each photo large enough to adequately display the product without an additional click. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but for the casual customer browsing jackets on both these close competitors’ sites, North Face’s products are ?much easier to view. ?

That doesn’t mean the North Face site is perfect. The brand does little to spur interactions; a live chat representative is not offered and customers are urged to leave reviews via inconspicuous tabs to the right of each product. As a result, the majority of products contain few reviews, if any. ?

Adam Ketcheson, director of brand management at North Face, agrees that there is more work to be done. “Any way we can continue to build our community and reviews is always a high priority for anybody in our space,” he says. In fact, it expects to revamp its e-commerce offering in the second quarter to “make our website easy to navigate for the consumer.”?

“The North Face provides a simpler, visually superior shopping experience,” adds Bill Hustad, VP of customers at Baynote, an ?e-commerce services provider. “Its site offers stark color contrast; things pop out more. The thumbnails are much bigger than Patagonia’s.” ?

Dave Kerpen, CEO of social media marketing firm Likeable Media, agrees that “most customers appreciate a simpler design as opposed to clutter,” but he praises Patagonia’s live chat as “more ?important to me as a consumer.” ?

Each company’s approach to e-mail marketing is consistent with its e-commerce strategy. Patagonia’s January 24 e-mail boasts a 30% off all winter styles sale, free shipping on all orders more than $75 and electronic gift cards. However, no product is explicitly advertised within the message and the tabs linking to the e-commerce site are tiny and forgettable. ?

This approach was consistent with a second January e-mail that Direct Marketing News examined. Instead of product fodder, Patagonia, which declined to comment for this story, filled its e-mail with a photo of a dog sitting on the snow alongside a baby in a Patagonia snowsuit and holding what resembles a child-sized ski. The photo’s caption informs recipients that “there’s something for everyone, but hurry, the sale ends today.” ?

North Face’s January 24 e-mail spotlights the Summit Series Meru Paclite jacket and offers a “Learn More” call to action that drives readers to a landing page featuring product information, ?purchase options, a ratings feature, similar products and a “share” button, which all enhance the probability that the product will sell. The e-mail provides a photo of the jacket in both red and black and offers an extensive product description of 58 words embedded in a giant product link. Tabs linking to the e-commerce site are posted twice in bold fonts at the top of the message.?

Both companies also sell their products through catalog, and in this channel, Patagonia improves. Its 2011 winter catalog is effective at both promoting its product and brand. Unlike its e-commerce site, the catalog’s product photos are attractive and take up much of the page. The majority of the photos are adjacent to exotic skiing spots such as Mount Tuscarora, UT, or the Skeena Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. Interspersed between the product and location shots are stories like Earth Juice by wildlife biologist Douglas H. Chadwick, that make the reader feel as if buying a Patagonia product will transport him onto an expedition. ?

Yet, once again the e-commerce site is an afterthought. The only instance of driving catalog readers to its site comes in the form of small font tucked away at the bottom right corner of every few spreads. Readers aren’t asked to join the e-mail list until page 33, ?a request that is also made in small font on the bottom right corner. ?

The North Face 2010 Gift Guide does a better job of driving readers to the brand’s digital channels, where unlike its catalog, it does an admirable job promoting its products. The catalog’s opening spread invites readers to join a sweepstakes to “Win gear for a year.” Interested participants are asked to register at North Face stores or online for a chance to win. The retailer, like Patagonia, provides exotic stories and photos. Unlike Patagonia’s catalog, though, the stories in North Face’s book are on separate spreads than the products, so the reader is pulled away from the shopping experience as he reads. North Face’s product photos pale in comparison to those on its website. Most products take up less than one inch of the page and are surrounded by six or seven other products.

In terms of social media marketing, Patagonia’s strong customer connection indicates that it might have fewer “fans” than the North Face, but it takes the time to engage them all. The retailer has only 78,825 Facebook fans and 20,962 Twitter followers. “If Patagonia was going to a party, it would bring its two best friends,” says Adam Metz, director of social business at The Pedowitz Group. “North Face would bring ?100 acquaintances.” North Face’s Facebook and Twitter pages are jam-packed with information. As of January 25, the retailer had 768,917 Facebook fans and 24,845 Twitter followers. Unlike Patagonia, however, each conversation is posted by the company itself on its Facebook page. “Our primary focus is to get our content out,” says Ketcheson. “We don’t address consumer concerns in a public forum. Instead, we send private Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages.”

Brand Champion

If Patagonia upgraded its e-commerce site and adapted a more sales-driven e-mail and social marketing philosophy, it could pose a threat to other marketers in this space. The brand is more dedicated to capturing the interest of fans than direct response selling. Although The North Face could spend more time talking to its customers, it consistently offers impressive direct response opportunities alongside compelling content.

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