Two years after SNEWS® first publicly lifted the veil on a newly formed company that had hoped for secrecy and quiet, the first Nau store opened for business on Mar. 27 in Boulder, Colo. We sent a SNEWS® reporter to the store to get a first peek at this new concept of a "webfront."
If you hadn't seen the article in the business section of the local paper, there would be no way to tell that the new Nau store was open for business. From the outside, the understated store appears boarded up in the afternoon when the white sunshades are closed (the storefront faces west, so shades are necessary to keep from roasting customers and staff inside, we would assume). The only clue that Nau was open on Tuesday -- let alone that this was the grand opening of a new national chain -- was an open door.
Located in the newly rebuilt, uber-yuppy shopping mall east of downtown, Nau appears to be angling for an upscale customer demographic. The Twenty Ninth Street Mall is also the location of the Montbell flagship store, Helly Hansen, lululemon, Eddie Bauer and Puma. The mall is across the street from an REI that is scheduled to double in size soon.
Once inside, our shopper was quickly greeted by several employees who were eager and helpful without being clingy. During the 20-minute visit, we noticed about a half dozen customers who had heard about the new shopping concept and were checking it out as well, though we witnessed no sales.
The 2,200-square-foot store has a clean, modern look with good lighting and expensive fixtures. With nothing but Nau products (aside from a few magazines that appeared mostly for show), the store appears open and a bit understocked. But that is the point.
The concept of the "webfront," as one salesperson explained, is to save money and resources by operating leaner and meaner. Consumers can walk out of the store with the items they desire. But if they are willing to wait three to four days for free shipping, 10 percent is deducted from the purchase price (local sales tax is still collected). The reasoning behind offering the discount, we were told, is that by reducing a store's inventory level and the store's needed physical size to accommodate that inventory, the financial and environmental cost of a cardboard box and having a brown truck drive up to your front door are offset.
The store is also set up with touch-screen kiosks so that, in theory, it can operate with fewer staff, though there didn't seem to be fewer staff in this store than we would expect in any other with a similar size. The kiosks merely duplicate the online website, but are much faster since you don't have to wait for downloads that can vary at home depending on connection speed. If a customer is interested in a product on the shelves, as we were, they can carry a small printed card over to the kiosk and pass it through a scanner to have details come up on the screen. Unfortunately, as we discovered, the barcodes on the cards were misprinted and didn't work. Nau staffers told us a fix is in the works and should be ready next week. While the technology was interesting, it didn't strike us as even coming close to replacing floor staff who can explain why a simple wind shirt costs $180.
Beyond its desire to take the shopping experience for customers to a new level using technology, Nau also has lofty goals about environmental and social stewardship. With each sale, the customer designates where 5 percent of his purchase is donated. There are 10 designated charities (two global, two national, and six local that will vary depending on store location) from which to choose.
Most of the Nau clothing is made from eco-friendly materials too. Nearly everything either has a high recycled polyester content or is made from organic cotton. Nau will also offer corn-based fabrics that can be composted instead of left in a landfill when a person is done wearing them, we were told.
After perusing the products on display in the store, the company did a good job of sourcing materials that have a nice hand and unique look -- which will help to differentiate them from other products to be sure. However, somewhat surprisingly, Nau has done a less than stellar job of explaining the performance attributes of its products' technical fabrics. This lack of information is particularly glaring considering the Montbell store is a block away with some of the most technical products on the market and outstanding product information.
At least with the initial launch of spring fashions, the designs are clearly aimed at the urban consumer with a healthy disposable income. In particular, they are styled for consumers in their 20's and 30's who probably won't stray too far from the trailhead or bar. Some of the clothing we saw, for example, will be perfect for shopping at the Wild Oats grocery store across the parking lot and then going to the Boulder Rock Club, but we doubt you'll see much Nau high on a peak in Rocky Mountain National Park -- and that, frankly, is the point.
There are some semi-technical products that may appeal to older or more "hardcore" users, but these tend to be also priced on the higher side and to our experienced shopper's eyes, didn't really differentiate themselves all that much from offerings by numerous other high-end outdoor brands. For example, the Courier Windshirt is really nice and compact with a great feel, but at $180 we'd need some serious reasons, not just witty or cute ads or point-of-purchase copy, to buy one. When asked about what makes Nau clothing different from the rest of the crowd, one salesperson told us that Nau used real fit models to size its clothing instead of computer-based measurements that most other companies now use. Our test shopper tried on some Acoustic Pants ($125) and found the sizing accurate, but the fit nothing special compared to other pants from other companies he had recently tried on (and the fabric was a bit shiny for his tastes).
The entire collection's color palette can be summed up as "any color you want as long as its gray, olive, navy or tan." Which, when combined with the rich browns, slate and white color-scheme of the store, creates an understated earthy look melded with technological overtones that is somewhat less than visually inspiring.
SNEWS® View: Overall, Nau is certainly creating an interesting concept by combining the perceived convenient notion of Internet shopping with an in-store ability to feel the innovative and stylish fabrics and try on the products for fit before ordering.
Just how stylish is the clothing? Consider that style is a personal taste and subject indeed to the whims and vagaries of trends. Our team has seen the clothes presented in a hotel room personally by designer Mark Galbraith, and now on the rack in the Nau store, sans the personality and passion of the designer. While a number of the pieces inspired our team to jot down a few notes for requesting gift purchases for upcoming birthdays and Christmas, the majority of the line as we saw it in the store really didn't leave us all hot and sweaty and fumbling for a credit card to add a vital missing fashion link to our wardrobe immediately.
Perhaps that is the fault of the merchandising or simply the lack of any real inspired in-store experiences that might serve to elevate the Nau webfront to a place consumers will want to return to time and time again…just because. Perhaps it is because our team expected singificantly more considering we've been covering this upcoming launch for two years now?
Where was any in-store messaging and merchandising dedicated to connecting the local shoppers to the locally-based nonprofits such as EcoCycle and Center for ReSource Conservation for example? And what about museum-quality or art gallery-quality displays highlighting and explaining Nau's use of innovative and unique fabrics and yarns, or hands-on opportunities for customers to feel and touch the raw materials being used, and see how the use of them benefits the environment. Other than the interactive kiosks, there was little else compelling a customer to linger, return, play and even learn.
Nau certainly picked well to launch in a city like Boulder with a large and ever-growing population of Audi and BMW drivers; Subarus are so passé in Boulder now. In the next few weeks, stores will open near Portland, Seattle and Chicago where they also stand a reasonable chance of success because of an affluent and chic clientele. We are told the company plans to open another 100 stores in the next three years -- but a lot of whether that comes to fruition or not depends on how successfully the initial launches pan out.
At this point, we doubt the opening of a Nau store will have any real impact on other specialty apparel or outdoor specialty stores nearby. Nor do we believe, yet, that other outdoor clothing lines have major reason for concern that customers will gravitate to Nau apparel and away from them, as long as each company keeps its own designs fresh.
All-in-all, following our first real viewing of the store concept, and not just a private showing of a product line in a hotel, it is our feeling that Nau actually may be able to carve out its own healthy niche in the market…IF the company tightens up the initial technology-influenced hiccups, bolsters the information deficiencies, and works to create a more compelling in-store experience for customers, like nau.