Trailblazer returns to its New Haven home, adds two more stores

What would you do if another business wanted your leased retail space and offered you a deal too good to turn down to move out? Likely, you'd find another cool spot to set up shop not too far away, and call it good. Chris Howe, co-owner of Connecticut-based Trailblazer, though, apparently looks at the retail world through slightly different lenses, and decided as long as he was going to reopen one store, why not open two more -- all within spitting distance of each other.
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What would you do if another business wanted your leased retail space and offered you a deal too good to turn down to move out? Likely, you'd find another cool spot to set up shop not too far away, and call it good. Chris Howe, co-owner of Connecticut-based Trailblazer, though, apparently looks at the retail world through slightly different lenses, and decided as long as he was going to reopen one store, why not open two more -- all within spitting distance of each other.

"We had an ideal location in New Haven, with great window displays and great street frontage, but the offer from the bank that wanted our space was such that we really had to put our biz hats on to realize we could not say no," Howe told SNEWS®.

So Howe and his partners, Todd Raskin and store founder David Venables, began looking at retail space and, almost serendipitously, Yale University Properties happened to have three ideal retail locations available that it wanted to present to Trailblazer -- one of which just happened to be the same location Trailblazer had departed four years prior.

"Returning to our old location made the decision even easier," Howe told us. "Our customers were familiar with it as we'd been there for 10 years. We knew the flow and feel of the space, and as a result, we understood and were able to quickly determine ways to better utilize the space."

What really intrigued Howe and his partners, though, were the other two Broadway District retail spaces, both right next door to each other and just across the peninsula -- a mere 100 feet from where Trailblazer would be relocating.

"We saw this as a unique opportunity to be able to practice one of the things we had always talked about, which was to create other retail brands that served associated areas of the industry."

And so, the three created a retail concept that would allow them to address market opportunities they were seeing after tracking store demographics, sales and merchandising data. It became clear that The North Face and Merrell were such dominant brands that they could build a store just around them. As a result, it would allow Trailblazer more retail space to showcase other brands by moving them out of back corners and off four-ways. It was also clear that since the store was already selling products to snowboarders and the skate crowd, it could break out that segment too and really give it a stage, and in the process, potentially attract a new and younger cliental. The resulting outcome of the strategy plan was a three-store concept:

Trailblazer will return to its original location at 296 Elm St. and is slated to open mid-April. The 2,700-square-foot store will continue to focus on its specialty outdoor sport, camping, running and climbing roots, Howe told us, with an emphasis on showcasing vendors such as Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, Arc'Teryx, Marmot, Black Diamond, Keen, Asics and New Balance.



Denali, a 1,600-square-foot store which opened mid-March on 13 Broadway, is anchored by The North Face and Merrell brands with, according to Howe, about 10 percent of the product mix from other vendors as fill-in for those areas that perhaps neither Merrell nor The North Face is particularly strong in.

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Traffic is scheduled to open in late spring. Located at 23 Broadway, the 1,900-square-foot store will focus on the surf, skate and snowboarding lifestyle, featuring skateboards, snowboards and surf boards, as well as clothing and footwear from the likes of Burton, Billabong, Roxy, Element, DC, Volcom and others.

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For Howe, the opportunity to recreate the familiar Trailblazer space drawing on the lessons from over 14 years of retail was manna from heaven.

"We have learned literally hundreds of things over the years -- some of them so obvious now that weren't when we first opened," Howe said. "Our dressing rooms were in the corners of our old space, for example, because it seemed like the only place we could put them. We were slatwall oriented back then, and are not now. We know how important lighting is, and color and texture and flow. Experience, and time, and a bit more money this time is allowing us to take our store designs one step further."

Howe told SNEWS® that when he and his partners began laying out the three-store concept, their plan was not to link the stores. But as news got out about the move and the new stores, the customer response encouraged them to switch gears. They embraced the idea of three stores, each a separate brand, but it made marketing, customer and business sense to link each to the other.

"The thing that has perhaps surprised us the most is how many folks in the 30- to 45-age demographic have told us, 'We're really psyched about what you are doing with Trailblazer and Denali, but my kids are totally psyched about Traffic!'" said Howe.

"We are absolutely going to be attracting a new customer, and our hope and plan is that we will be able to get them into our other stores by leveraging Traffic," Howe told us. "Maybe the Traffic customer will only go into Denali at first, but that is a start. We've also made it so our customer can return a product purchased at, say, Denali, and then use that store credit at either Traffic or Trailblazer."

And while the individual stores will each market their own gift certificates (with the other stores listed on the back to show the relationship), there will also be a gift card that shows all three store brands on the front, good in all stores.

So far, things are going as planned for Howe and the Trailblazer team. The Denali opening was really solid, according to Howe, with sales attributable to The North Face and Merrell brands for the last two weeks of March 2008 double that of the last two weeks of March 2007. And this with no promotion other than direct email to its customer base and no advertising since the owners want to wait until all three stores are open before having a grand-opening bash.

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What has surprised Howe is how much footwear business the Denali store is driving, due in large part, he believes, because both The North Face and Merrell shoes get star treatment on the footwear wall of that store.

"Historically, we have a strong footwear heritage and nearly 30 percent of our business comes from footwear," Howe told us. "We have a reputation for great fit and train our staff well, which drives that. But the sales jump for The North Face and Merrell footwear has been pleasantly surprising, and perhaps a natural result of how those two are feature brands on a wall of shoes, whereas before, they were just two other brands on a wall full of other brands."

Denali is succeeding, as expected, and Howe and his team have no doubts about the reopening of the new Trailblazer store. It is Traffic, though, that has them feeling as if they're gambling a bit.

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"Admittedly, the Traffic concept we are nervous about. It is a real risk on our part…it is us believing in an idea and our convictions about that idea and going for it. The other two will work we know…Traffic is more of a calculated gamble," Howe told SNEWS®.

The store concept is quite unique, at least in the outdoor and action-sports retail realm. Essentially, Traffic is divided into two stores, with the front of the store focusing on merchandising to males. It will be more industrial with exposed metal and shop lights, bright in appearance, with mostly hardgoods and some shoes and apparel. In the middle of the store, the customer walks through a gateway, and enters into what Howe describes as a "secret store within a store" merchandised just for women.

"A lot of the traditional skate and snowboard shops tend to be very male oriented, and we felt we would be leaving money on the table if we were not creating an environment where women, who we know make up 55 percent of our customer base, felt comfortable shopping -- an environment tailored for them," said Howe. "The atmosphere will be less bright and more refined, with curved walls and carefully designed direct lighting to accent merchandising."

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It is worth noting that this is not the first time the partners have gambled a bit on store ideas. Seven years ago, when a large Indian casino (www.mohegansun.com) was opening in Uncasville, Conn., the tribe mandated to the developers that it wanted the shopping experience to be a blend of both national and local retailers.

"They came to us with the idea of opening a Trailblazer shop in the casino mall and we were inspired by the idea," Howe told us. "It was a fantastic concept we thought, a bit like opening one of our stores in Disneyland."

What Howe and his partners realized, is that because a store in a casino mall would be visible to so many different kinds of customers, statistically, they were going to be seeing a Trailblazer customer quite frequently and quite possibly, new customers as well. They weren't too far off in the guess. In fact, while the store no longer sells high-end sleeping bags, the casino location accounted for more sales of Western Mountaineering sleeping bags than the other two store locations combined.

These days, the casino Trailblazer is very different from the other two, focusing more on lifestyle and selling, certainly, The North Face, Patagonia and such, but also Billabong and Roxy, along with ski lines and some fashion brands to maximize sales per square foot.

Clearly, the successful evolution of the Mohegan Sun Trailblazer is what Howe and his compatriots hope for with Traffic. Few, it appears, are betting against them.

SNEWS® View: Yet another example of a retail enterprise that thinks less of itself as an "outdoor specialty store only," with all the requisite possible limitations, and more of a merchant of outdoor and related products. Refreshing. And, clearly, successful. With sales up single digits, sales are hovering around $11 million -- not bad for an independent retailer that was founded in 1995. It certainly doesn't hurt when your landlord, Yale University Properties, wants you back and welcomes you into prime retail real estate, joining storefronts such as Barnes & Noble, J. Crew, Urban Outfitters and Origins. And while it might be a bit of an urban legend, rumor has it the ATM adjacent to the Denali store is one of the busiest in all of Connecticut. That sounds like a cash-rich environment to us. Trailblazer is a member of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance and joins several other members in that group of retailers redesigning, tweaking or otherwise moving stores.

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