How MEC is building on its experiential history

CMO Anne Donohoe talks about the retailer's past, and future, as a place to chill, run, climb and shop.

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At lunchtime on a blustery April day, Mountain Equipment Co-op’s new Toronto flagship on Queen St. W. was filled with curious shoppers combing through the racks of raincoats in most colours under the rainbow, from a tiny toddler testing out a child’s camping chair to a frazzled-looking woman swiping her smartphone on one of several sofas on the second floor.

The cavernous 35,750-square-foot, two-storey, space, which opened last week, was designed with just these uses in mind. The Vancouver-born retailer just moved its Toronto flaghsip from King St. W. on up to Queen St. W. Last weekend it celebrated the new store opening with everything from DJs spinning tunes to attendees scaling the new 1,000-square-foot bouldering wall and members testing out tents using VR technology.

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Experiential is the name of the retailing game these days, and MEC is climbing to new heights by building on its experiential legacy.

“Inherently our offering is very experiential. You know everyone is talking about experiential retail, but for us that isn’t having a coffee shop in the store,” says Anne Donohoe, MEC’s CMO. “Members will spend a significant amount of time in our stores because it’s an experience within itself and that’s what we’re trying to amplify with our Queen Street store.”

The outdoor gear-and-clothing-company started in Vancouver in 1971 and by 2013 had 17 stores in six provinces and 3.5 million members across Canada. The retail co-operative has charged $5 for lifetime membership since its inception as a place beloved mainly by outdoorsy types. While it still serves that market, it rebranded in 2013 to appeal more to the young, active urbanites that now also frequent its stores. It still has a focus on items for outdoor activities, but the new store also sells bikinis, yoga mats and trendy tops emblazoned with the word “Love” in metallic text.

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The mix of items that appeal to everyone from bicyclists to portagers to yoginis to runners means MEC now competes for Canadian customers alongside a wide breadth of retailers, including Canada’s current most admired brand Canadian Tire, fellow Vancouver-based company Lululemon, and American retailer L.L. Bean (which has its eyes on expansion here). Despite the stiff competition from much-larger players, MEC now has 23 stores, plus its online store, and will soon expand to a seventh province when it opens its first Saskatchewan store next year. It has also substantially grown its number of members from 3.5 million almost six years ago to more than 5 million members today.

Unlike a range of retailers who have areas that sell an array of food and drink in a café-like setting, such as Indigo, Muji, Nordstrom and the Lululemon store that’s a stone’s throw away on Queen St., MEC is staying focused on “on providing an end-to-end experience” to help Canadians buy gear for a range of activities, says Donohoe. That includes a range of experiential offerings, such as treadmills where people can test out shoes to a wooden play area for kids to explore.

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The Toronto store is MEC’s third most popular bricks-and-mortar store and features tested there will be applied to its most popular store (in Vancouver) when that flagship gets a makeover soon, says a spokesperson for the retailer.

While online sales continue to grow, the majority of purchases are still made in-store, according to the retailer. And the Canadian-born brand, like many other retailers, find while many people do research online Canadians still want to come into the store to touch and feel a product before actually buying it.

In fact, the International Council of Shopping Centers’ recent report The Halo Effect: How Bricks Impact Clicks found that opening a physical store increases traffic to that retailer’s website and it drives up the share of web traffic within that market by an average 27%. “In other words, there’s a clear media value attributable to physical stores,” notes retail analyst Doug Stephens.

There have been futurists claiming the death of bricks-and-mortar retail is nigh, but Stephens, a.k.a. Canada’s “Retail Prophet,” believes there will continue to be a need for both online and physical stores for many years to come. And MEC’s CMO agrees that investing in physical stores pays off, echoing the report findings that when MEC opens a new store in a new region the retailer usually sees an uptick in online sales.

“Whether it’s online or in-store our focus is really on providing an end-to-end experience to help [Canadians] get outside and be active.”

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