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The Evolving North Face

NEW YORK — The North Face Inc.’s first store on the East Coast reveals its most compelling side: product innovation. <br><br>The company’s newest unit — only the seventh regular-priced store it operates — is housed in the...

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NEW YORK — The North Face Inc.’s first store on the East Coast reveals its most compelling side: product innovation.

The company’s newest unit — only the seventh regular-priced store it operates — is housed in the landmark Ansonia apartment building on the northwest corner of Broadway and 73rd Street. The two-level unit has 8,000-square-feet of selling space and is expected to hit $4 million to $5 million in sales, according to industry estimates, even though it’s not in the densest of Manhattan’s retail destinations. Reebok, however, opened on 67th Street and Columbus Avenue this week, and the new AOL/Time Warner center will have a significant retail component when it opens later this year on Columbus Circle. Patagonia, a primary competitor, has a store on Columbus Avenue near 81st Street.

The store shows off the brand’s full assortment of high-performance, high tech, authentic outdoor gear, including outerwear, sportswear, footwear and equipment, for extreme athletes and those who pretend to be, and enthusiasts for weekend hiking and camping.

There are $1,000 “Himalayan” down suits to withstand arctic environments; “Ama Dablam” jackets, at $379, named after a peak in the Himalayas, with soft, stretchable Gore-Tex and wide sleeves for easier wall climbing, and $99 “Venture” jackets that are waterproof, breathable and seam-sealed, and in the mid-price range. Then there are tents engineered after Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and running shoes with variable “scorpion” spikes for different terrains.

“Our business is really driven by innovation. We really do invent stuff,” said Michael Egeck, president of The North Face, during a tour of the store, which opened last Friday.

The North Face chose the Upper West Side, partly because it’s far enough away from such major accounts as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Paragon, Transit and Eastern Mountain Sports, to avoid cannibalizing its sales at those stores. “We want to be sensitive to our wholesale business,” said Sandy Wait, the company’s vice president of retail.

In addition, the company was drawn to the Ansonia because of its unusual facade and the challenge of restoring the interior space to its true character. The North Face tore down concrete walls to uncover the original brickwork and 25-foot-high cast-iron-framed windows that were concealed for decades. They now provide light and dramatic vistas down Broadway. Previously, Gap occupied the site.

The Manhattan store is considered a prototype, along with the store on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, opened in March 2002. They feature stainless steel columns and fixtures, offset by artifacts from far-flung places scattered throughout the store, including Indonesian tribal drums, and Asian motifs, such as a water wall at the entrance. There’s also a large tapestry composed of ceremonial robes from India quilted together. The interior architects were JGA of Southfield, Mich.

The North Face plans to open additional stores in “prime major metropolitan streets to build brand awareness,” Egeck said, though at a slow pace. “We have identified at least 20 cities, but we are not on any distinct timetable. We are very deliberate. We do have some potential locations on the back burner, but when we want to find a site, we’re not just looking for a brand showcase. It has to be profitable.”

One to two openings annually are foreseen, although no additional openings are slated for this year. The objective, he said, is “getting more growth through existing sites” — at both The North Face stores and its wholesale accounts. The North Face products are sold in 1,800 doors in the U.S., 1,800 in Europe and 400 in Canada.

Older units are in Chicago, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Seattle and Boulder. All stores are profitable, Egeck said. There also are six outlets, but three will close before the end of the year, leaving those in Freeport, Maine, Woodbury Common, N.Y., and Berkeley, Calif.

The careful retail approach is the latest step in The North Face’s quest for a higher profile and higher volume since becoming a division of VF Corp. in 2000. At that time, the brand did $238 million in sales. It’s been growing at around 13 or 14 percent a year since the takeover, Egeck said, which would put The North Face at over $300 million last year. The brand also has boosted its program of sponsoring expeditions to four to six annually, involving pro athletes on rafting, mountain climbing, skiing and even kite-powered ski expeditions.

While the travel industry and retailing has been hurt by world events, Egeck suggested The North Face shows resiliency. “Our core consumer is really dedicated to the lifestyle we represent,” he said. “We see an uptick in the use of the outdoors for family get-togethers. People are enjoying the natural resources of this country.”

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