On the Hot Seat: REI's Brad Brown

Brad Brown

REI's Senior VP of Digital Retail, Brad Brown, is overseeing a complete overhaul of the outdoor outfitter's digital presence. FierceRetail sat down with Brown following his opening keynote at Shop.org to learn more about how REI plans to revolutionize its website, connect with shoppers and the lessons learned along the way.

FierceRetail: You've spoken quite openly about the shortcomings of REI's current website. What surprised you when you started to examine how your website was resonating with shoppers?

Brad Brown: This is hard for me, because we were absolutely, utterly failing in delivering how we had defined our brand promise. We've never had the clarity that we have today about our brand and what it means, about who we are as employees. Jerry [Stritzke, REI president and CEO] has a whole manifesto around REI and who we are and the role we play as inspired guides. We never thought about it that crisply before. So as we developed that understanding and started probing what it meant in our stores and our digital properties, we came to the realization that what had happened in our digital space was this kind of slow, purposeful and thoughtful evolution from the website that we launched in 1996. Admittedly, no one knew much about the Internet and how customers were going to react, and in absolute fairness and respect for everybody that worked on it along the way, we made a whole bunch of good decisions, but they were kind of evolutionary in nature.

Many years ago, we made the decision to start investing in expert advice and build that content out so people could actually better understand or learn how to pick a tent or hiking boots. So, we developed this really great content. In our space, we have the best how-to-choose content in the business. But we never made it easy to find at REI.com, and we never wove it into the commerce experience.

So, we're actually doing some testing right now, trying to inform site redesign in some categories. We're trying to figure out how we can best integrate that content and get people more immersed and spend more time on our site. Because if they're on our site, spending time learning, they can't buy on another site. They're building a connection with our brand that we think is far more powerful than one that they would get through just browsing products.

FierceRetail: There's a good deal of contradicting research out there about whether or not social media, specifically Facebook, drives sales or engagement. What is your experience with social media and the role that you find it's good for?

Brad Brown: Our primary goal of engaging in social media is to drive a connection and communicate with a "fan"— a customer, a member, somebody that's got an affinity for the outdoors. My guess is that we attract very few new customers to REI through social media. The vast majority of our Facebook followers are members of the (REI) co-op and were members before they started following us on Facebook.

FierceRetail: Have you found interaction with them on Facebook increases their activity with you, their purchase activity, or have you not been able to track that?

Brad Brown: We haven't drawn those correlations. Some Facebook followers will state their member number and some will not. If they state their member number, we can do some data finding on that, but I think it's a pretty small sample. But we do know it increases their contacts with the co-op. So, if they're in a dialogue with us in a social environment it's really hard to imagine that bad things can happen from that and that's the main reason we're engaged. It's to have a conversation.

We'll throw out a question on Twitter or Facebook asking, "What are your plans for the weekend?" to see what comes back. We did lots of camp promotions this summer on Instagram and Pinterest. So, it creates a dialogue. I really don't think it's that much different than the dialogue that often happens in our store between members, between customers.

FierceRetail: Are you exploring ways to make your Instagram or Pinterest feeds shoppable?

Brad Brown: No. I mean, we pay attention to what's going on in that world. I think we're going to be a laggard in that. We know that a lot of people have had successes but we're a little less impulse-driven. For a lot of the things we sell, how it resonates with your friends is not of primary importance.

FierceRetail: Is the site redesign complete, ground-up, all-new look, or is it evolutionary?

Brad Brown: It is revolutionary. Our site today is organized just like we're organized as a company. That is not the way customers shop. We have a challenge—because of how we've organized and how we applied information management disciplines to that—our taxonomy's kind of all screwed up. Part of the redesign is fundamentally changing the entire information architecture of the site. That's ground-up, nuts and bolts work.

We realized we had to do something really different. We're not going to wait for the cat to bark. In our goal to make shopping on REI.com just like shopping in our stores, we're going to mix content and commerce together in a way that, frankly, I don't think a lot of people are doing very well right now. Not just better storytelling about the products that we think are important, we actually do that pretty well. But wrapping that story around inspirational content.

Our brand, the work that we've done around the brand earlier this year is so powerful and important to us as a company that we just aren't going to make sacrifices anymore. And we don't need to. It will be revolutionary. It will be focused on delivering experiences that customers are having today with us and supporting those better.

See all of FierceRetail's Shop.org 2014 coverage here.