vickie achee on the grand retail experiment at patagonia

Today’s interview takes a peek behind the curtain at an extraordinary company, Patagonia

Patagonia is known worldwide as an outdoor clothing and gear brand, but I wanted to better understand the company’s retail strategy.  Who better to ask than the head of marketing for the North America Retail Division at Patagonia, Vickie Achee. A twenty-plus veteran of the company, Vickie has held many marketing and branding positions throughout her tenure and has the inside scoop on the company’s current push to grow retail (opening 15 stores this past year), including its new concept, Tin Shed.

Take a listen to learn how Patagonia is taking on a grand experiment in retail, opening its mindset to different types of markets and retailing models.

Later this week I’ll be posting photos and notes from when I visited the Tin Shed location in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so check back soon to get even more inside scoop.

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Today’s interview focuses on retail, retail at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear brand. Patagonia has been loved by fans for years for its authentic products, its compelling story-telling catalogues and sustainability efforts. It has been in the news lately as one of several retail companies that have been testing new alternative store formats. So we are going to talk about Patagonia’s concept called Tin Shed and retail strategy in general with Vickie Achee who heads up the marketing for the North American retail divisions of the company. Vickie has actually been with the company for over 20 years, started when she was [five], holding many marketing and planning positions throughout her tenure. Also, she has a great perspective to share. I just want to welcome you, Vickie. Thanks for being here.

Vickie: Thank you, Denise.

Denise: I want to start off by asking you a basic question about Tin Shed. What are the objectives behind Tin Shed? What are you trying to do? How does it differ from your regular Patagonia stores?

Vickie: Sure. Our Patagonia Tin Shed stores are new concept stores for Patagonia. They are temporary stores, that we decided to place during the holidays in our top market which is in New York City. It is a way to test these locations for their potential permanent lease tenure. They are in neighborhoods that we felt would generally benefit from, as far as being able to connect to that community, to get new customers and hopefully be able to get the brand message out to even more a broader reach. We currently have two stores in New York City that are more permanent stores and they have been doing really well for us. We realized in New York City, because of the largeness of the city and the fact that there are a lot of different neighborhoods, that we had an opportunity to grow, that would not only tell are brand message, but also, like I said earlier, to be able to engage with more of our customers. Which is an important thing for Patagonia.

Denise: Right. It sounds like a smart strategy to kind of test the waters before you lock yourself into a long-term lease, particularly in a city like New York where customer response probably would differ greatly by neighborhood.

Vickie: Exactly. We find that in our new Broadway store that we are seeing more visitors that happen to be from the nearby universities; as opposed to the people in the upper east side where we have had more families. This is a different type of neighborhood, so being able to communicate and to engage with both types of customers is important for us. Going to where they shop and live, is we felt a better strategy than to try to grab them and take them to another place which maybe is more convenient for us.

Denise: Right. Take the retail to them, as opposed to making them come to you. Now, one of the things that we were talking about earlier that I would love for you to share with my listeners, is about how these stores are engaging with the local community and taking on some of that local feel. So if you could talk about that.

Vickie: Sure. Well, as I mentioned earlier, what is important to us is one of the functions of our retail stores is to be part of that community. We have the opportunity to engage with our customers, so let us take it and have them come along with us in our journey of environmentalism, or in products that are out there and useful, functional and durable. We use our stores as locations to partner with our customers, if you will. One way that we do that is by having events that we feel would further connect not only our brands that help us engage with our customers. In our Broadway store, for example, we have been having bi-monthly film events that are adventure films, kind of edgy films, films that further communicate who we are as a brand; and get customers excited about the sports that we are so excited about.

In our upper east side store we have realized that we have an opportunity to tell more of our environmental stories, so we have “Environment Fridays” where we invite local environmental groups to come in and engage with our customers, talk about what their issues are in their own backyard and ways that they can work with these local environmental groups to help these issues. One Friday we might have a group that would have people sign letters to the local legislature to sign up for membership lists or volunteer lists, or maybe even buy a raffle to get a chance to win a Patagonia product.

Denise: That is great. I think that, that speaks to maybe the challenge a lot of retailers have of wanting to engage with a local community and allows a local store to really take on the flavor and the feeling of the local community, but still stay true to the brand and kind of that overarching experience that you want to have at any location. Actually, if you could talk a little bit more about how does your company ensure that the Patagonia brand is representing consistently across all of your stores and then, I guess, beyond that, to your catalogs, your marketing, your products, etc.

Vickie: I think the best way to describe it might be is our brand and our mission statement is part of our DNA and everything that we do. We are lucky to have a world class in-house creative agency that designs and produces and graphically creates all of our promotional materials. We have a real good in-house communication system to get that stuff out. So I think that again for us our employees are our strength as well. In that the people that we hire really do subscribe to the values and the goals of our organization. Simply by having a conversation with customers about the jacket they are going to purchase can lead into a lot of different things. Going from the functionality of a jacket to how this jacket was made and why and how it can be recycled. I think we offer a lot of different opportunities to get that word out to customers starting with our employees.

Denise: How do you hire or how do you make sure you have the right employees then?

Vickie: We have a great HR program, I guess, and maybe the strength of our brand speaks to that. We have a lot of people constantly coming to us to want to work for us. That is a good question. I guess this just speaks about the strength of our brand.

Denise: One of the concepts that I am familiar with is this idea of being a lighthouse brand. Where you are so crystal clear about what you stand for and what your values are, and if you shine that brightly, strongly and with focus out into the market place, from an external perspective, customers self-select themselves to come in and want to do business with you, but I guess the same thing would be true with employees that the employees self-select themselves and say, “This is the kind of brand, the kind of company that I want to be a part of.” It strikes me that Patagonia is probably that kind of lighthouse brand.

Vickie: I would say that is true. For instance, Patagonia has been here for 21 years. It is not unusual that we have people here for 20, 25, 30 years. It has sort of become an extended family for all of us.

Denise: Right. The one thing I wanted to ask you about was there has been a lot of buzz lately about Patagonia’s common threads program, and your “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign. I was hoping that you could share some of thinking behind the program and how retail performance is viewed, relative to a message that really encourages people to buy less or be more conscientious about what they are buying. Could you talk about that a little?

Vickie: Sure. I think that actually the common threads recycling program is something that has been in the works or something that we have been doing all along, since the beginning of time with our company. With a generous guarantee we have a really good repairs program. Our overall mission statement states that we will build the best product and do the least harm to the environment. So I think that is how it has been, again, part of our DNA. We have finally gotten to a point where we are able to get our hands around it and communicate it, package it if you will, into one program. The common threads recycling program is more of a lot of different steps involved where we are encouraging people to investigate the four R’s of recycling. Beginning with recycling what you already have, that you no longer use. Get rid of stuff. Do not keep them in your closets if you do not use them. Move on. Send them to other people. Keep them out of the landfill. We go from reduce to re-use. Use what you already have. Again, the idea of keeping everything out of the landfill, and finally getting to a point where you are more conscious about what you consume.

If you buy things that easily thrown away, you do not value much, the idea of a throwaway society and filling up landfills is really not a sustainable way to live. So we encourage customers to be conscious of what you buy, use stuff that is going to get you through, and recycle as much as you can. We actually do have a recycling program where you can get rid of your used things. We will recycle them and re-purpose them into a new product or we will help you sell it through eBay. We have an eBay program that we have worked out. Don’t buy unless you really do need it.

Finally, the final R is re-imagine a better world where we are not based on consumerism, but really your purchase price, the way you live, the way you conduct your life. It is more introspective, where the quality of inner actions, the quality of products, the quality of how you run your life is one that is more meaningful than it is one of throwaway, or “If this isn’t working, we want the next” or keep buying, keep buying, keep buying. I hope that makes sense.

Denise: It sounds like a wonderful program, and it sounds like it comes straight from that DNA that you are talking about, that is your brand. That is what Patagonia has stood for all these years. I think one of the challenges that we have had is identifying whether you call it sustainability efforts or call it a socially responsibility efforts or whatever, that really tie in to who they are as a company and what their business is about, and what their business model is or how they design a business model. I think this is a great example of Patagonia’s doing that. It is not like a bolt on thing that you do, as a checklist that, “OK. We have done this.” but is rather bringing of the core value of yours into not just a program but everything that you do really.

Vickie: It is not a marketing shtick. It is not a new program to get more customers or get more revenue. It really is how we live, us as employees. This is just another extension of what we really do, and encouraging our customers to come along with us.

Denise: Right. Great. The last question I wanted to ask you about is kind of circling back to Tin Shed. You mentioned that so far things have been really good for you. So I am just curious are you planning to open more, and how does Tin Shed fit in with your overall retail growth strategy, because I know these guys are growing incredibly fast internationally. So if you could just talk about what is next for Tin Shed?

Vickie: Yeah. This is a grand experiment for us. We have opened 14 new stores worldwide this fiscal year, and these two are part of it. We want to just open up our mindset if you will to look at different types of markets, different types of retailing, with the idea again, of what is the best way for us to engage with our customers. So Tin Shed offered us an opportunity in our top market to figure out ways that we might want to re-jigger the way that we do things, i.e., rather than getting into a store location and finding a 10 or so year lease, looking at it and seeing if, “Well, is this a right fit for that neighborhood?” how well received are we with our community. It gives us an opportunity to be a little bit faster on our feet, if you will. If it does not look like it is going to work out that we have the opportunity to leave, or if we feel that it is going to continue to grow and we have opportunities to feel that growth, then we will go ahead and sign that lease. We have the opportunity to do that right now.

I think what we are going to do is going to sign these temporary leases through to the end of April, which is the end of our fiscal year. We will evaluate it on a small list of criteria from which we are going to judge the performance of these stores, and from there decide if this is something we want to continue on a more long-term basis. As far as new Tin Shed, again, that is going to be based on how well we measure up with the list of our criteria. It is so far so good. So at this point it is still a nice tool to have in our tool chest. Our Director has allowed us to think outside of our own box as this is how it should be done. So it is an exciting time to be in retail at Patagonia right now.

Denise: Indeed. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of this information. For my listeners, you could learn more about Patagonia on their website and Tin Shed specifically if you go to patagonia.com/us/tinshed. You can learn more about the Tin Shed kind of brand itself. Then, later this week I will be posting some photos and my recap from when I visited the Tin Shed store in the upper west side. So please check back on my blog for that. Vickie, thank you again so much for being with us. I appreciate getting a look behind the curtain at a brand that I have long admired and I wish you the continued success and best of luck going forward.

Vickie: Thanks so much, Denise. It has been a pleasure talking with you. I will talk to you soon.

(transcript by Speechpad)

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