The Seattle Times: North Face store closure highlights downtown Seattle’s mixed recovery

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Image Source: The Seattle Times

This story was originally published in The Seattle Times on May 17

When Nike closed its downtown Seattle store last year, no one was more surprised than the staff across Sixth Avenue at The North Face.

“They’re making a mistake,” North Face manager EJ Reiser said at the time, adding that the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pike Street was one of downtown Seattle’s prime retail locations.

A little over a year later, North Face has followed Nike out of town.

On Sunday, the outdoor retailer permanently shuttered the two-floor, 15,000-square-foot flagship location at 520 Pike St. it has occupied since 2019. A recorded message referred callers to other North Face locations in University Village, Bellevue and Southcenter.

The closure adds yet another twist for a downtown that has begun to see some post-pandemic recovery in its retail sector despite lagging foot traffic.

On Friday, a Los Angeles-based company announced it had purchased Pacific Place and planned to transform the struggling mall into “a first-class shopping experience with a uniquely Seattle flavor.”

Denver-based VF Corp., which owns The North Face, didn’t respond to questions about the closure, and Tishman Speyer, which manages the 29-story 520 Pike building, had no comment on the matter.

But industry experts suspect North Face’s about-face on downtown likely reflects a mix of local issues and broader challenges in the outdoor clothing sector, where VF Corp. has struggled with declining sales.

“Consumers are just cutting back a little bit on outerwear,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at retail analyst GlobalData, who notes that even strong brands like REI have struggled recently. “People are just not upgrading [outdoor gear] as much as they used to … and I think that’s hit North Face.”

In the quarter ending Dec. 31, North Face reported a 10% decline in sales compared with a year earlier. Before that, North Face had been one of the few bright spots for VF Corp., which also owns the Vans, Timberland and Dickies brands.

The company, under pressure from investors, is in the middle of a turnaround attempt and in November laid off around 500 of its roughly 33,000 employees.

North Face has also come under fire by some conservatives for initiatives aimed at making outdoor sports more inclusive.

North Face’s broader struggles may have been compounded by the slow pace of recovery in downtown Seattle.

Since the start of the year, downtown has seen around 52% of the office workers that were present in 2019, according to weekly cellphone data posted by the Downtown Seattle Association.

Security concerns continue to be an issue for some downtown shoppers and retailers.

In April, national retailer Lululemon closed its Pacific Place location and Fox’s Seattle, a 112-year-old jeweler, closed its store at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

“We aren’t seeing the walk-in traffic into our store … partially because of people not being in the offices full time,” Zoey Mann, Fox’s president and the third generation of her family to run the jeweler, said at the time.

Declining foot traffic and security issues were also reportedly factors in the December closure of Bartell Drugs‘ remaining downtown store, at Fifth Avenue and Olive Street.

In March, North Face closed a location in San Francisco, the city where the company got its start in the 1960s but also a city that has struggled with lower numbers of office workers.

“We never like retailers to leave downtown, but we understand these decisions could be driven by various factors as that sector continues to evolve,” the Downtown Seattle Association said in an emailed statement.

But, as that business organization notes, even with the departures, downtown Seattle has seen other major retailers either open or reopen in new and often larger locations.

That includes Japanese retailer Uniqlo, which opened in the former Bon Marché/Macy’s building last year, and Arc’teryx, which moved this spring from 400 Pike across the street to a much larger space at 401 Pike.

BH Properties, which acquired Pacific Place for an undisclosed sum, also expressed confidence in downtown’s retail potential, even though the long-struggling 335,000-square-foot mall is currently just 45% occupied.

The new owner said the mall location in downtown’s Pike-Pine shopping corridor “boasts all of the economic and demographic support required to restore it as Seattle’s premier shopping experience.”

North Face itself had doubled down on downtown’s demographics five years ago when it moved into the Pike Street location from a store barely a third the size at First Avenue and Spring. At the time, The Puget Sound Business Journal reported that North Face “wanted more space and better foot traffic.”

Jeffrey Rosen, a commercial real estate broker at Seattle Pacific Realty who specializes in retail, wonders if North Face’s departure has less to do with downtown than with a lull in consumer interest in outdoor gear.

Before the closure, Rosen said, he had “walked through the North Face several times, and I did not find it compelling — I didn’t find anything I was particularly interested in.”

But he added, that merely means “there’s a trend at the moment, which is probably very temporary.”