Customer Service

10:01 p.m. on April 6, 2008 (EDT)
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Anyone had any particular good or poor customer service encounters? Who really stands behind their products? And what has happened lately that everyone seems to be hating TNF about?

12:22 p.m. on April 7, 2008 (EDT)
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The negative feelings about TNF are not recent, but date way back. First thing is that they are a BIG company (to borrow from a certain person who posts on Trailspace), and a few years back, they were taken over by a Major Corporation (VF, which originally was a small lingerie company Vanity Fair, that grew huge by acquiring other companies - take a look at their corporate website). Many woodsy folk prefer to deal with small companies rather than huge impersonal multinationals which outsource their products (second irritation point). North Face was started by a former employee of the long departed and much lamented Ski Hut (Berkeley, CA, also known as "Beserkeley", by city ordnance a "liberal city" and "nuclear-free zone", which also highly restricts the presence and appearance of homeless people). After TNF had grown tremendously, the founder and CEO wrote a personal puff piece, er, biography and corporate policy book, which irritated a lot of people in the basically anarchist outdoorsy community. In getting to the huge size, TNF had gobbled up a lot of smaller outdoors companies (such as Sierra Designs), later spinning them off or just dropping the brand names. (You can find all this on various non-corporate websites, by the way).

Then TNF started having financial problems, which led to quality control problems (in some cases affecting their expedition-level gear as well as their more popular gear). Also, along the way, during the backpacking boom of the late 1960s through 70s and into the 80s, lots of people began wearing TNF gear (and some other outdoor companies' gear) as fashion statements, particularly college students. The vast majority of these people never went into the woods and hills, which added yet another irritation (what am I up to, 5 or 6 points now?) for the True Woodsy Folk. I recall when I was a professor at BU that a lot of students would show up for class with Kelty packs (the early Tiogas) and TNF internal frame packs, and in winter wearing the early version of Goretex shells and down parkas with the TNF logo prominently displayed. Well, ok, it can get pretty cold in Boston in winter.

TNF ended up being acquired by VF, which inspired lots of jokes about TNF lingerie for the backcountry, and a lot of worry about what might happen to the quality (an example being extrapolated from what happened to Eddie Bauer, another company which originally was a top quality expedition gear manufacturer). Big corporations tend to be very unresponsive in their customer relations, and when gear is outsourced to SE Asia and other overseas places, the lines of communication and responsiveness to problems just seems to get worse.

However, TNF (and VF) has gotten worried about the brand losing its cachet, and they have involved some real mountaineers and adventurers to act as consultants and testers. This has shown some results in improvements in quality and customer responsiveness. So basically, it really isn't anything particular lately; it is more the history of the company that is hanging on like the legendary "albatross around the neck". Their expedition-level gear is good quality in my recent experience, though not up to the level of some other companies (including some which are also part of big corporations). For example, my experience with Mountain Hardwear tents is that they are better designed and better quality, with better customer responsiveness than North Face's tents (but there are other companies whose tents I find better than either MH or TNF, and they happen to be from smaller, independent companies). As another example, I find Patagonia's expedition-level clothing (another big company, which is not part of a huge conglomerate) to be better than TNF's, and Pata is far more environmentally conscious, with the company more responsive to customers. But again, there are smaller companies whose expedition-level clothing I prefer.

Well, gotta get back to preparations for the Olympic Torch visit in 2 days. Free Tibet! (Zounds! Another one of those SFBay Area Aging Hippies!)

4:38 p.m. on April 7, 2008 (EDT)
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Hm. I haven't seemed to have any problem thus far with them, but with all their quality issues, I've been wary. I have learned a lot since joining this site about many of the smaller companies (or maybe ones I've just never heard of) like FF, WM, ID, etc. and have been very impressed with some of the gear they have to offer. I find it somewhat irritating that TNF fleeces are used as a fashion statement in my school for example. I know some of these kids and can't even imagine them camping, yet they buy these expensive jackets, fleeces, bags, etc. Goofy in my opinion.

6:22 p.m. on April 7, 2008 (EDT)
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The kid said

Quote:

I find it somewhat irritating that TNF fleeces are used as a fashion statement in my school for example.

BFD. Look at it this way - more customers means larger production and more competitive choices, means that fashions change rapidly, means that us genuine dirtbags can buy the expensive gear cheap on closeouts and overstock of "last season" gear. Who cares about what color it is, as long as it works?

The "real" outdoor market is pretty small, barely enough to keep a small shop or specialty company going without charging exorbitant prices or custom making stuff, if you don't have a lot of "fashion" customers who never actually use the gear.

I watched Gorillas of the Mist last night and was reminded how elitist Fossey was. If she had had her way, the preserves would have been shut off to all but the elite enlightened who supported her and her work (and maybe not even most of them). Sometimes I feel that my special areas and activities should be reserved as well. But if the wider public does not understand and appreciate there will be no support for preserving the special areas. If lots of wannabes and poseurs (as a certain banned former poster put it) are participating only vicariously by wearing TNF or Patagucci clothing, carrying a Lowe Alpine pack, and watching TV shows and movies (accurate portrayals only, thank you, no "reality" junk) means that such things become readily available and cheaper for me, then that's part of the price I have to accept, at least as long as they don't get out there and start crowding the hills so there is no shoulder room.

So let them enjoy their jackets. Real woodsy types are out in the hills and woods and don't have to deal with the wannabes.

8:50 p.m. on April 7, 2008 (EDT)
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I'd rather be searching for a wannabe lost in the wilderness (or the city) dressed in "fashionable" TNF outdoor gear than a trendy dressed in cotton jeans and an Abercrombie hoodie. It just might keep them alive long enough to be found. Oh, that goes for GoreTex Timberland boots too - They beat Chuck Taylors or skate shoes any day.

10:55 p.m. on April 7, 2008 (EDT)
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Good points. I really wish I lived somewhat easier access to trails and such around here. I'd love to get out more often, but with school and all, gets rather tough. That along with finding those who even want to be outdoors anymore.

1:52 a.m. on April 8, 2008 (EDT)
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People hate REI for the same reason they hate TNF-it's not some little mountain shop any more. My favorite REI story (which I have told before, so apologies to anyone who has heard it already, but it is worth repeating):
The short version-
Clerk: Hi,What's your member number?
Me: (As I place an avy shovel on the counter)Usually everyone asks,"are you a member?" What gave me away, my REI rain jacket?
Clerk: No, you're buying a member item, non-members just buy clothes.
Me: Hmm, very observant.

This illustrates Bill's point exactly. The people who buy the clothes and outdoor chotchkes to wear around campus make it so the rest of us can buy decent gear at a reasonable price. If someone wants to drive around Brentwood in a Land Rover Defender with "roo bars" on the front end, or walk around BH (Beverly Hills) dressed like Ed Viesturs,so what? And yes, I seen both, maybe not the full ready for Everest look, but close enough.

btw, what do the rangers at the top of the Palm Springs tram call the high heels women walk around in up there in winter? One point crampons.

Oh, as far as good customer service, the aforementioned REI, MSR, MacPac, A16 in West LA, MEC (via email), Patagonia and my new favorite, Voile. I love those guys at Voile. They will take all the time you need to answer even the dumbest question and believe me, I have asked them a few.

12:40 p.m. on April 8, 2008 (EDT)
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Quote:

One point crampons

LOL!

Some people say that 4WD (like the aforementioned LR Defender with roo bars) goes well in the snow and ice, but doesn't help braking. Not true - 4WD vehicles automatically apply the high friction side when skidding on ice and other slick conditions (aka, turning turtle - the roof and skis on racks, and especially roof boxes, provide LOTS of friction).

5:06 p.m. on April 8, 2008 (EDT)
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If, you know how to drive them, a good 4x4 is lightyears beyond ANY other vehicle in snow, ice, mud and bad roads-steep country. Those who "roll" them are usually suburbanites who would get their "Beemer" stuck at a mall lot.

In 43 years of driving 4x4s all over western Canada, much of that to make my living fighting wildfires, I only rolled ONE and that was my buddie's Land Rover 109 pickup. He was passed out in the front seat after he and I had consumed a dozen beer and and 1 and a 1/2 qts. of "Black Label" Johnny Walker and I was driving home from up a very narrow, abandoned mining road in a driving rain at about 02:00, just about 40 years ago to the day.

Things were fine, then, the lousy electrical system packed it in and the headlights quit, so, I drove over a 200+ ft. bank near Giveout Creek in the West Kootenays of B.C. Fortunately, we flipped twice and then hung on a huge boulder about 60 ft. down and we crawled out, up and hiked to a nearby friend's house and re-joined the party.

Next morning, we skidded the truck up the bank with a D-6, put some more oil in it and drove it to town, replaced the side window broken in the accident and pounded out a couple of dents with my old man's plumbing ballpeen hammers.

He drove that truck for another year and then traded it for a Fender Stratocaster and Marshall amp. as he was a musician. So, rolling 4x4s is usually done when things are less than "normal".

10:05 a.m. on April 11, 2008 (EDT)
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VF's Acquisition of TNF

Fortune Magazine just published an article on VF Corp's successful decisions to buy certain brands like TNF, which it bought in 2000.

This part I found interesting:

Quote:

VF decided to bet on "lifestyle brands" that tap into consumer aspirations to fashion, status, and well-being -- and carry a price premium. One such brand was The North Face, a maker of outdoor gear such as ski jackets and fleece vests; sports enthusiasts loved the brand, which had also crossed over to become a favorite among the urban crowd.

There's more on that acquisition and others in the full article, "How a 100-year-old apparel firm changed course," at:
http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/08/news/companies/kapner_vf.fortune/?postversion=2008040907

2:53 p.m. on April 11, 2008 (EDT)
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Good story Alicia. What a lot of people don't often realize is that what looks like a small company, and sometimes may be, is often owned by a larger one. K2 started out as a small ski company, was bought by a conglomerate that changed its name to K2, and eventually owned K2, Atlas, Tubbs, Marker, Vokl, Marmot and some other brands.

In 2007, K2 was bought by Jarden, an even bigger company that owns several dozen companies including Coleman, plus a bunch of consumer brands like Oster, Rival, Mr. Coffee, Sunbeam and Crock-Pot, just to name a few.

5:16 p.m. on April 11, 2008 (EDT)
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Interesting story, and catches me up on some acquisitions and divestitures. I had forgotten about K2 picking up Coleman (Johnson Worldwide has sold off several of their brands, which Tom mentioned in his response. Tom did not mention that Dana Designs (name now dropped) got bought by K2 and put under the Marmot umbrella, an interesting point since many of us here love to extol our Dana packs (like my Terraplane and my son's Bomb Pack). Johnson Worldwide (JWA) was started by the Johnson who was head of Johnson's Wax company (he was an avid outdoorsman, though more of a fisherman and hunter than a backpacker) for the purpose of gathering a bunch of good outdoor companies (some of us consider those companies to be ok, but not really all that good in their products). But, as I said, JWA has been divesting itself of some of the companies, often to the likes of Jarden/K2. It was also amusing to read in the article that VF Corp has sold off their original namesake, Vanity Fair - guess we can't make the jokes anymore.

10:36 a.m. on April 16, 2008 (EDT)
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It's getting harder to keep track of who owns what these days. Hasn't Columbia bought up a bunch of brands as well? I think Columbia bought Moonstone and just shut down the brand. I didn't realize JWA was selling off companies, they had quite a large group at one time. JWA shut down Camp Trails some years ago. JWA's product line always seemed to be decent quality, middle of the road, but not high end products.

It's quite rare for a company to resist the urge to sell off, eventually the original owners, or their heirs, will have to sell. Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends are two companies that come to mind that mostly the same as what they were 30 years ago. I don't know if the owners are the same, but they continue to make high end down bags in the US just like they started doing in the 1970's.

6:53 p.m. on April 16, 2008 (EDT)
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What I find interesting is that with Jarden, they have kept brands separate, even with competing products. They haven't folded Atlas and Tubbs together, for example, even though they go head to head in the snowshoe market.

Also, sometimes you will see owners sell off their company, then start up another one to make a new line of products in the same field.

7:58 a.m. on April 18, 2008 (EDT)
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FYI, Columbia owns Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Pacific Trail, and Sorel.

It can be surprising to realize how many outdoor companies are owned by larger outdoor companies. We used to keep a list of who owned what, but it got rather complicated to keep updated.

August 20, 2014
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