Strolling along Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colo., you'll notice a new retail game in town with a different customer bent -- targeting active women in search of high-tech apparel and gear for outdoor, fitness and ski pursuits.
Co-owners Kim Walker and Mike Callas came up with the idea for Outdoor Divas while working in outdoor and ski retail shops in Vail, Colo. Callas managed a ski shop that carried about 20 percent women's gear, while the majority of the store's open-to-buy went to buying men's product.
"If you were a woman coming in the store, you could have an entry-, mid- or high-performance level boot and you had once choice in each of those levels. In an outdoor store, you could find a couple of jackets for women but 10 for men. There wasn't a grouping of anything altogether under one roof," Walker said. "I personally had to go from store to store to find something, while Mike could go into one and find everything he needed to outfit himself for an entire trip."
When Callas returned to school to get his MBA, he came prepared with the Outdoor Divas business concept. While he was hitting the books at the University of Michigan, Walker stayed in Colorado to do market research. She noticed not only that the women's segment growing in terms of manufacturing, but also that manufacturers were investing more dollars into the category.
"When we did our research, we really looked at segments of the market that tended to be growing, and also where there were more female participants. It was about where there were participants, where we actually did see a lot of product being developed for women. There certainly are segments that are stronger for women than others, and we tried to pick those," Walker said.
When the store opened in November 2002, the sport mix they settled on was climbing, kayaking, mountaineering, camping, hiking, fitness, mountain biking and yoga. For their first winter, they also featured alpine and tele ski equipment and apparel, and plan to branch into snowboarding and cross-country skiing next season. During the winter they carried brands like Isis, Wild Roses, Betty Rides, Sierra Designs, Helly Hansen, Rossignol and K2. For summer, they added Watergirl, Moving Comfort, Pearl Izumi, Shebeest, Kokatat, Immersion Research, Perception, Dagger and Wave Sport. They also have the freedom to carry wider size runs, from extra small to extra large and those hard to find shoe sizes like sizes 5 and 11.
"We have quite a large selection, and our strong vendors are the women's-specific brands. Isis, for example, does amazing things with its line and it fits women really well. Some of the bike clothing companies like Shebeest just do women's clothing and they really have the fit down. We've had a great response to the women-only brands," Walker said.
The 3,000-square-foot selling space houses 70 percent softgoods and 30 percent hardgoods, but Walker said the dollars even out equally.
"There are a lot of good brands out there making women's specific product. To be honest, the margins are a lot better on softgoods at this point. We wanted to be able to attract customers, and women do respond really well to softgoods. I think that our hardgoods selection percentage will increase as time goes on and as people discover we do carry more hardgoods," she said.
So far, the store has attracted hard-core athletes, everyday outdoor and fitness enthusiasts, and walk-by traffic -- a definite benefit of being on the popular pedestrian Pearl Street mall. In conjunction with the store, Walker and Callas also started the Discovery Center, which offers intro and intermediate climbing, kayaking and skiing classes for women. They plan to expand the program and offer outfitted trips like kayaking in Mexico and bike tours.
"We really want to promote women in the outdoors. Get them outside, help them not only get what they need but also give them the opportunity to get out there and give them a little guidance," Walker said. "Women learning together creates a sense of community. I think that in itself is a great bonus to any retail operation."
The Discovery Center employs five part-time instructors and the store has 10 staff members, many of whom are fulltime. The mainly female staff works on a group commission based on monthly revenue, get free class admission and "an aggressive vacation plan to really give people some time off," Walker said.
Starting a business during a hard economic time doesn't sound appealing to most, but Walker said they felt that if they set a goal and stuck with it they would get some great results.
"We spent a lot of time researching (the economy) when we started with this plan. We figured if we started when it was tough, it was just going to get easier. When we were working with our financials, we definitely gave time for a ramp-up period, knowing we were coming into a tough economy and that retail was in a downside," she said. "And we've kept that target with our numbers. It's been very positive for us."
SNEWS View: Our editors have visited this store several times and are quite impressed with the efforts. Even in a crowded Boulder retail market, where it sometimes seems as if every other store is an outdoor store or a store with an outdoor feel, Outdoor Divas appears to be getting good traffic and increasingly strong support. Several women we spoke with in Boulder told us similar tales -- they shop only Outdoor Divas now for women's gear (even though there is a Title 9 in town) simply because they get friendly, honest, supportive, personal service and the selection of product is strong. Our guess is Divas can grow and prosper as long as the company continues to realize what the word "specialty" in the phrase "specialty retailer" really means: to make your customers feel special, which has nothing to do with how special the retailer itself thinks it is.