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Boulder, Colorado

Redefining Retail: Nau’s unique concept unifies its stores with web-based shopping.

By Penny Bonda

Can one company have it all: a gorgeous aesthetic, top-notch products, cleverly interactive storefront/online integration, environmental excellence, and, oh, by the way, a social conscience? Nau, a Portland, Oregon, outdoor-apparel company, is pretty sure it can. The founders mostly former executives from Patagonia and Nike started out with the notion that they could break out of the retailing paradigm on a lot of different levels.

Photo © Skylab Architecture
NAU, Boulder, Colorado

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LOCATIONS: Multiple, including Bellevue, Wash., Boulder, Colo. (pictured), Chicago, Ill., Portland, Ore., Tigard, Ore.
COMPLETED: Bellevue-2007, Boulder-2007, Chicago-2007, Portland-2008, Tigard-2007
PROGRAM: Retail stores based on modular wall system

OWNER: NAU (www.nau.com)

TRACK LIGHTING: Con-Tech Lighting
FIXTURES: Builders Furniture
DOORS: Endura Wood
PAINT: Sherwin Williams Low-VOC
MDF: Arries - Sierra Pine - EcoMDF
TILE: Pental Granite & Marble

Altruism, for example, is a founding principle of Nau (a Maori greeting that translates as “come to me”). “If we could find efficiencies in the business model, we realized we would be able to yield a percentage of our sales to give back to the community,” says creative director Scott Fedje. “Uniquely, it’s the customer who decides at the end of each transaction where they want five percent of that sale to go, selecting from a list that runs the gamut of international, national, and local organizations for environmental, humanitarian, and social [projects].”

As retailers struggle to position themselves in traditional business models brick-and-mortar or online Nau embraces both and intertwines them in a way that exploits the advantages of each. “Webfronts,” which is what Nau calls its stores, allow customers to touch and feel the merchandise but not necessarily walk out with it. By choosing the “ship to you” option, shoppers receive free shipping and a 10 percent discount on their purchases. Prominently placed in store touch screens take them to Nau online, where they can order and find detailed information on the products. “It’s a win-win for both the customer and us,” states Fedje. “We can have a much smaller footprint because we don’t have to stock a lot of inventory, and we’ve enhanced the customer experience.”

The inventory they do keep is atypically stored in the front of the house in drawers that are part of the modular wall system created by Skylab Design Group. Modularity is key to Nau’s business plan as well as to its environmental strategy, according to Skylab principal architect Jeff Kovel. “It allows us to accomplish multiple goals at once. Our build-outs try and retain as much as we can of the existing structure in order to minimize waste. We can drop the prefabricated four-foot modules into the shell without relying on a precision surface as backdrop. Plus, if a store should fail, we can pick up the parts and install them in a new location.”

Not that anyone expects failure. Five existing retail stores are open, with nine more projected by the end of 2009 and 150 by 2010. Nau is betting on the success of its strategic business plan, centered around three very precise core values: beauty in its products, stores, and Web site; performance as a mass marketer in a boutique setting with a social ethic; and sustainability.

In fact, sustainability directs Nau’s corporate building philosophy and guides every decision, from the size of the webfronts (most are around 2,000 square feet), emphasis on waste minimization, and selective demolition to, centralized fabrication and very green material choices. Ralph DiNola, a principal at Green Building Services Nau’s environmental consultant that guided the Boulder, Colorado, store to LEED-CI Gold elaborates on the specifics, including a commissioning requirement for all HVAC systems, separate metering when possible, and the exclusive use of formaldehyde-free products. Sustainability also emphasizes the deeper environmental message.

“The most important story,” DiNola states, “is not necessarily what you see at Nau, Boulder, but what we learned from that experience and are continuously improving on by asking what we can do better as we build out more locations.” Nau has two projects in the LEED-CI Retail pilot program and plans to eventually certify the entire chain through the U.S. Green Building Council’s planned volume certification program.

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This article appeared in the April 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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