13 July 2015

MEC Products, Services Disappointments: open letter

Below is a slightly edited version of a letter I sent to MEC, Mountain Equipment Co-op, about the problems and disappointments with MEC products and services seen during a visit to a MEC store.  The exact store location is edited out as I don't want to blame any particular team of front-line workers, seeing as I believe the problem is more systemic and a reflection of the top-down corporate culture at MEC.

Interestingly, some of the points raised here applies to software and tech companies too, in how to treat customers and how to design products, if you can think laterally to those areas while reading below.

I don't really like posting these kinds of open letters, but most people in the know who would critique MEC would probably just rather buy their gear elsewhere and spend their time in the mountains instead.  Seeing as the following was already written, it doesn't cost me anything to copy-paste the below, so here it is.

I've read from several sources that MEC has explicitly stated their mission has changed over the last decade or so to try to attract more urban activity people rather than appealing to the technical backcountry crowd.

Fair enough, if that's what the Board of Directors has approved as part of their reading of what the people who voted them in wants them to do.  Who am I to deny the democratic process in this co-op?

But a few things:

1. Products

Pretty please, could you retain at least some design time and some staff who can actually help design MEC clothing or gear that are actually good technical gear at a fair price?

Pants as just one example has turned into a circus of yoga inspired pants everywhere.  The expedition trekking, technical, or light mountaineering pants that were MEC brand kept getting End of Lifed and clearanced, then a new version comes out that's more everyday stylishly wearable --- I guess to attract more customers --- only to be again End of Lifed and clearanced off again.  The cycle repeats as the technical functionalities gets watered out with stylishness.

1.1: Hats

Hats as another and more in-depth example, the original topic that inspired this email as I was looking at the MEC Rover Hat.  You've got plenty of other brands of hats that's like the Rover Hat, all with a mix of flaws and different target audiences.  You had a chance to make the Rover Hat make some logical sense as it currently has no functional sensibility --- and if there's no technical functional sensibility, then why wouldn't I just buy a "better branded" hat of that style?  Here's what I mean.



Look at the Rover Hat's chin strap.  It goes through two holes in the hat.  In even light constant drizzle rain, it's going to wick water directly from on top of the hat into the wearer's hair and face in a constant stream.  I speak from experience of a similar hat with the same design flaw.

Now look at the Rover Hat's brim.  It's wide, which is nice, but it's not stuffable in case I need to stuff it into my pack to put on a helmet, say when needed while doing a climber's scramble.  At least not stuffable without damaging the wide, flat brim.

Next look at the Rover Hat's top piece.  It's a squishy double layer with some stuffings inside.  WTF?  Why are you insulating my head in the middle of summer?  Plus it's extra weight, and it'll make it difficult to dry after getting soaked in heavy rain or the river.

Just who designed the Rover Hat?  If I wanted stylish, I probably wouldn't go with a MEC branded hat anyway.  Stop trying to be stylish and start making some sense!

What would be a better type of hat to rip off the design from, or just get your buyers to stock some of: Marine style boonie hats.  Chin straps sewn in from under the brim prevents wicking water in. Covered grommet holes for ventilation without letting larger bugs to crawl in.  Completely stuffable without damage.  Etc.  It lacks every design flaw in the MEC Rover Hat.

If you rip off that design, you don't have to go with the military camo print either.  The functional design is simply better, that's all.  And no product at MEC has the same level of functionality in its design.  I have no choice but to get a boonie hat from Amazon.ca or a military surplus store and live with the military camo look instead, because MEC failed in that one product category.

I only focus on the hat here because it was the latest MEC product that just made me go "WTF who designed this thing?" and I spent some time examining it at the store.

1.2: Jacket

Here's one more example because I was close to buying this jacket then a few small things stopped me.  Consider the MEC Edge Line Jacket.  Good looking jacket --- and MEC is sure getting very good at making things look good --- it fits ok, I put it on and come to the realization that there is only one small chest pocket that has a snap button to keep it closed.

But if I were to actually use the jacket for anything remotely outdoorsy, I can't trust putting anything in the inside or outside "handwarmer" pockets since they are small and cut such that things will probably jostle and fall out, say when I climb over a boulder.  I suspect the "handwarmer" pockets are labelled as "handwarmers" only after the copywriter realized they can't seriously be used to store anything safely without fear it'd fall out --- as in, "it's not a bug, it's a feature!" style of copywriting.

It also convinced me not to buy it.  All because it was missing three lousy 10 cent pieces of velcro or snap button closures.  It's very disappointing, especially when you see the product description saying it's "Part field jacket, part bomber".  Which part, exactly, is it a field jacket?

Google search field jacket and you quickly find that field jackets descend from the military.  From the M-1943, to the M-1951, to the M-1965 which has been copied and modified into many civilian versions.  If you're going to copy that design into the MEC Edge Line, look at some of the major design points that are missing from the Edge Line that is so obvious you can see it from pictures online: MEC's version is missing 4 external drop-in pockets, all snap buttoned.  That's a pretty major miss.

So again, which part, exactly, is it a field jacket? How it looks when you squint at it, or how it functions?  The description should be rewritten as "Part field jacket look, part bomber style", as it obviously fails to function well as a field jacket given how much functionality it missed.

2. Staff knowledge

I notice a lot more green staff at the MEC store I visited.  I don't know if it's summer time or what, and you've got more new hires.  Certainly the level of knowledge your staff has have been going downhill on average in the past years.  Maybe it doesn't matter to your sales funnel.  But now I can't even tell people to just trust MEC staff's advice.

What evidence do I have for that?  I stand next to the shoe rack and overheard an entire conversation between a staff telling an elderly customer that his pair of hiking boots he wants to buy, if he were to bring it to some "wet areas", will "need" some Nikwax.  The customer goes with the staff and picks up some Nikwax like a good customer trusting the staff.

Just what "wet areas" did that staff think this customer will walk into?  That customer never expressed any desire to walk into a monsoon.  The staff never defined what "wet areas" meant, like did she mean a puddle or a river.  But based on a common sense understanding of wet areas when talking to an urban bound elderly man (and by the way he was walking in the store, it's pretty clear what kind of terrain he won't be heading into), why would the customer be told he'll "have to" rub in Nikwax on top of that pair of boot's manufacturer's waterproof spray or the natural water shedding ability of the leather, especially when it's brand new, if he will be walking into any "wet areas".

But I guess Nikwax must be a high profit margin item at MEC, just like those Superfeet insoles, which were sold out off the shelfs too.  Do MEC sales staff work on commission now?

I guess I can't blame MEC for wanting to up your profit margin or to increase sales.  It's a corporation, like any other, even if it cloaks itself in a "co-op" structure.  And again, if that's what the Board of Directors has approved as part of their reading of what the people who voted them in wants them to do, who am I to deny the democratic process in this co-op?

But you think maybe you could train your staff to be more knowledgable at least?  Maybe tell them to ask the customer and communicate an understanding of what the customer is looking for in terms of what kind of "wet areas" they might travel in first?  The kind of mountains and climates in this part of the country really doesn't get that wet.  And when it rains cats and dogs, that gentleman I mentioned probably won't be out and about deep in the backcountry or high on the mountains anyway.  I just feel bad his pension was being sold to, instead of him.

Or at least take some of that sweet, sweet profit you get from selling high margin stuff and retain some knowledgeable staff on clothing and general outdoorsmanship, and put them behind a Genius Bar* to provide some expert help to people, and maybe some expert training to your general sales floor staff also.

* That's obviously an Apple trademark, but they do [more or less] understand the problem between common sales clerks vs knowledgeable technical staff.  And they understand the importance of keeping the knowledgeable staff around to service and keep the loyalty of the more knowledgeable customers.  Not because the more knowledgeable customers are big revenue drivers --- I certainly don't buy much from MEC or Apple compared to many less knowledgeable friends I know --- but because knowledgeable customers are the people their friends go to for help and advice, like advice on where to go shop for things.

Over the years, the MEC brand has lived off of its early brand image of being a trusted place to shop for outdoorsy things.  Even as the actual technical and functional items started to get more and more watered down, losing all the well thought out little goodies while gaining lots of "style", the branding carried on.

But I'm sensing more and more knowledgeable people have begun stopping advising less knowledgeable friends to go to MEC, because it's no more trustworthy a place to shop than, say, SportChek, or Atmosphere, or Mark's, nowadays.  At least for general hiking and camping things.

I guess because the MEC bike shop actually employs people who has to have technical knowledge of how to fix a bike, it's a place I could still refer people to.  And perhaps depending on who's on shift, the same could be said of the climbing gear desk.  But most every other department seems to have lost its core value of having knowledgeable staff to give trustworthy advice.

I mean I could go on, what with the conversation I overheard at the water filtration rack between a staff who knew nothing about the filtration units being sold, reading the box with the customer together.  What I saw in an afternoon shopping at MEC showed me that some of the staff advice ranged from sales driven irresponsible marketing down to possibly borderline dangerous.  Along with MEC branded clothing that made no sense...

Other than the comprehensiveness of items under one roof and the bike shop, MEC increasingly doesn't impress me any more than Camper's Village, Eddie Bauer (i.e. First Ascent, Sport Shop), or Atmosphere does now.

This was long, because I care about MEC, and wish I could advise my friends, and their families and kids, to "just go to MEC", but that kind of advice is simply no longer valid.  And I'm not the only knowledgeable outdoors person who is or has been saying this now for a while.  I only wish MEC would do something about it.

I'm not sure I actually seriously expect a thoughtful reply given "you" are a corporation, and I'm just one vote to the Board of Directors.  But thanks for reading.

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