The year 2008 is a big one for The North Face. The San Leandro, Calif.-based company, which started as an equipment retailer and has grown to encompass skiwear, outdoor apparel, gear and footwear, turns 40 this year. Meanwhile, its footwear business turns 10 — another big anniversary, especially considering the gamble the company took two-and-a-half years ago, when it scrapped almost its entire footwear line and started fresh.
“We hired 16 people in about a two-month period, and we were working 24 hours a day,” recalled Barry McGeough, The North Face’s VP of equipment (which includes footwear). “We basically tripled our previous budget — we pulled from every resource.”
Looking to make its shoes more technical and performance-oriented, the company, a division of Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., pulled the line in-house after years of being made through an agent. The brand charged McGeough and his team with expanding and improving the line — and with getting it ready to relaunch for spring ’08. Working with its roster of 40 on-staff athletes to get feedback and consulting with outside design companies with expertise in biomechanics and performance, The North Face overhauled 93 percent of its line, introducing 21 outsoles, 16 lasts and eight technical rubbers.
“[The revamp] was really based on demand. Over the past two or three years, we’d seen double-digit increases in [footwear] sales,” McGeough said. “That showed us that without doing very much, people really wanted to come to us.”
Johnny Hawthorne, director of footwear sales, agreed that putting a greater focus on shoes would keep sales growing. “[The relaunch] was something we needed to do. Obviously, [our customers] were saying that was a big undertaking, and people were cautious, [but] people wanted us to make a change. Creating it in-house makes a big difference — you’re closer to the project.”
Despite retailers’ initial misgivings, the first season was a success. According to Hawthorne, bookings for spring ’08 rose 30 percent over spring ’07, and McGeough said total pairs sold globally soared 45 percent. And with spring getting a good reaction, there was only one thing to do: Move on to fall. (Well, maybe two things, McGeough said. “First we took a nap. Then we went into the fall line.”) Priorities for the 56 percent-new fall line, which hits stores this month, included working on temperature-sensitive rubbers and upping the sustainability of the product.
With two seasons of upheaval and change behind them, the team at The North Face is now ready to settle in and shift their attention from overhauling the line to improving what they have. Though that’s not to say there won’t be any newness: For spring ’09, McGeough said, “we’ve filed for three new patents.”
The brand’s focus on greening the product will carry forward into spring ’09. “We’re really pushing the green thing as far as we can go,” he said. The brand has stopped stuffing the toes of its shoes and started packaging them with 100 percent recycled tissue paper printed with soy ink. The company also eliminated all third-party hangtags and converted its own hangtag into an instep card. And the brand is looking ahead: “I’d like to be chrome free within five years,” McGeough said. “That’s my stated goal.”
The green push, he added, is especially important on the lifestyle side, a category the company believes can be a major growth vehicle. By using leathers from BLC-certified tanneries, 40 percent recycled rubber from their own factories and other natural materials, The North Face can create casual shoes that McGeough calls “technical green” — shoes with a green story and a performance story that are “not too crunchy, not unpalatable.” And lifestyle, which Hawthorne said was the fastest growing category within the brand, is getting an extra push from the new Turner collection, a four-style men’s casual group. The North Face is hoping the Turner collection and other lifestyle looks will help it enter the brown shoe channel, from which it has largely been absent.
But in no way is The North Face abandoning its performance roots. “We’re still a technical brand,” Hawthorne said. “Most of our business will come from the outdoor and sporting goods [channels], but brown shoe and specialty running will be a growth factor for us.” Opening doors in the casual market — as well as placing trail running and other styles into running-specific doors — is a priority.
Another major initiative for spring is an expanded biomechanical program, including the addition of neutral and stability models in the trail running and multisport categories. The company is also responding to growing interest in fast packing and shorter day-hike expeditions with new styles in its light hiking category.
All of which is good news, retailers say. “I was a little apprehensive because they were dropping so many historically important styles [during the relaunch],” said Ryan Strong, merchandise division manager at Backcountry.com. “But sales are good. People have responded really well.” Calling the brand one of the e-tailer’s top three, Strong said The North Face’s sponsored athlete connection also resonates with performance-minded shoppers.
Chris Burston, outdoor performance buyer for Zappos.com, agreed. “The North Face is a very strong brand for us, on both coasts,” he said, citing the brand’s Gore-Tex multisport style, the Hedgehog, as a major seller. As far as Burston is concerned, the revamp has been a success. “[Before], they definitely had the look, but they had a lot of fit issues. But they have a good team in place right now.”
McGeough, too, is looking forward to the next phase of The North Face’s footwear line after a long building period. “We were well rewarded [for our efforts], and we really feel like we’re on a great growth trajectory.”