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Exploring The North Face’s e-commerce strategy with Mark McKechnie

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The North Face is committed to offering excellence in e-commerce, with a digital strategy centred around the customer experience, from offering the best products to inspiring a global movement to get outdoors. To find out more about why The North Face’s e-commerce channel is much more than just selling products online, FashionUnited spoke to Mark McKechnie, senior director of digital sales at the outdoor apparel brand.

What is your role at The North Face?

I’m responsible for the strategic development and sales growth of e-commerce at The North Face. My responsibilities include digital marketing, merchandise planning, digital technology, customer experience and UX, operations and analytics.   

Have you always worked in digital?

Yes, my entire career to date has been in a digital retail sales role of some kind, always keeping one eye on Google Analytics! I’m really into sports and the outdoors, and I didn’t

know what to do after university, so I applied for an e-commerce trading internship at an online sports and apparel retailer based in London. 

I thought at the very least I would meet some people that like skiing and the outdoors, and I learnt quickly that because I was the target customer myself, being “consumer-centric” came very naturally. It shaped my career as I’ve only ever wanted to work in consumer goods businesses that sell a product I love and want to buy myself. 

I’ve worked agency side, at multi-brand online retailers and within brands. Before joining The North Face, I spent five years leading the e-commerce business at a premium sports nutrition business in the UK. In my current role, I enjoy how different brand e-commerce strategy is to retail e-commerce.

How did you rate The North Face in terms of digital IQ when you joined in 2019?

Honestly, very highly, and I was pleasantly surprised. I came from a smaller but very entrepreneurial business, and you can’t help but think that a larger corporation might not be as agile or forward-thinking, but I was wrong. 

As The North Face is part of VF Corporation, which includes Timberland, Vans and others, our digital technology platform is managed centrally, which means digital innovation from one brand can quickly benefit another. Within The North Face, there was also a very clear brand strategy and marketplace strategy.  

Did the pandemic change your digital strategy? 

No, not hugely - we have developed in areas like omnichannel and inventory agility, but The North Face already had a strategy that prioritised DTC digital, and the pandemic just allowed us to accelerate our plan. 

The centrepiece of our digital strategy is that we have a “point of difference” on thenorthface.com vs our digital wholesale partners to create a reason for consumers to shop and visit the brand website directly. We achieve this by offering our widest range of products including collaborations and producing exclusive content. The website is the best place to learn about the brand, compare products and allows our customers to talk directly to us through live chat. 

One area that changed rapidly was the role of our owned retail stores, as we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where demand shifted online. This meant we needed to be agile with our inventory, located across Europe, to leverage for online. We also utilised our omnichannel capabilities, such as buy-online-ship-from-store, reserve-online-buy-in-store and Zalando Connected Retail. 

Overall, the pandemic has changed how we think about our retail stores, with The North Face integrating its DTC business (e-commerce and B&M stores) around providing convenience to the customer. 

What do you mean when you say the digital strategy is different for brand e- commerce vs retail e-commerce?

A third-party online retailer or marketplace can combine the strengths of multiple brands and create a strong value positioning, such as fast delivery, great prices or expert customer service to drive sales growth. For a brand e-commerce channel, success is linked to building a great brand identity by focusing on storytelling and content on the

website, avoiding product discounts, ensuring the right balance of performance marketing vs brand marketing, and looking beyond sales as a KPI. 

What are you excited about in the world of digital?

Within e-commerce, there are still a lot of barriers to purchasing online, such as customers preferring to touch/try on products, wanting the product immediately, or favouring a face- to-face service. Online is constantly evolving to remove these barriers, such as offering super-fast delivery or live chat functions, and I'm excited to see this continue by connecting online to offline, whether through omnichannel services or augmented reality. 

I also think as privacy laws develop to protect individuals and their personal data, the industry will have to rethink several operations that will benefit brands that already have high standards. This will lead to innovation around personalising customer experiences that utilise technology while complying with privacy regulations.

What do you find unique about The North Face?

The North Face is truly a people and brand orientated business. I love how everyone that works here believes in its mission to provide great gear for our athletes to inspire people to get outdoors and protect the planet. I’m really into sport so it’s great to be surrounded by people that spend every weekend (or even work nights!) in the mountains skiing and running. But equally, I’ve met so many people living the brand exploration values in different ways outside of sport that is inspiring. Also, with The North Face EMEA headquarters located in the Ticino region of Switzerland, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in Europe. If you like mountains you are in the right place.

What advice do you have for somebody who wants to follow a similar career path?

My role requires a very generalist skillset. There are elements of analytics, brand, marketing, operations, and technology, so you can progress within digital through so many routes as the skills are very transferable.

My advice would be to focus on getting employment within digital businesses or sectors that you believe in or are interested in, whether that is the product they sell or the service they offer. You will find a culture and people that fit better with yours and, as a result, will thrive in it.

For more information about VF Corporation, check out the Employer Branding Page.

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