Outside Business Journal

Behind the Scenes at Thule’s First North American Retail Store

The president of Thule’s Americas region explains why the brand chose Denver for its North American brick-and-mortar debut and how the company will measure success in a challenging retail environment

Eric Smith

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Amid Covid-related lockdowns and the limiting of guests inside stores, the past year has been difficult for outdoor retail. But one global brand is betting that brick-and-mortar remains a viable channel for moving goods and, perhaps more importantly, engaging consumers.

Thule Group AB, the Swedish maker of a range of car racks, rooftop tents, bags, and other outdoor gear, is opening a brand store in Denver, Colorado, this summer in conjunction with longtime retail partner Rack Attack.

It will be Thule’s first physical store in North America—the company has about a dozen around the world—and the timing speaks not only to the brand’s sales success during the pandemic but its confidence in consumers returning to shop in person.

Fred Clark, president of Thule’s Americas region, has overseen the store’s development—his last major project for the brand. He is retiring in late April, a move he’s been planning for the last two and a half years. (He will be succeeded by Hilary Hartley.)

But before Clark closes his nearly 30-year career with Thule, we wanted to speak with him about the decision to set up shop in Downtown Denver, what the 1,600-square-foot store will offer, what’s next for the brand, and how Thule will measure success with this new retail play.

Why this retail concept, and why now amid the pandemic?

This store gives us a chance to better showcase our sport and cargo products—the traditional categories that most people know us by—but also our active kids’ products, including child bike seats, trailers, joggers, and backpacks. All of these categories are doing well as consumers have been looking to get outside, especially with their families, during the pandemic. It’s been a good time for our product categories and our brand in general.

Did Covid alter or delay this plan at all?

As far as the store itself, it has been delayed because of Covid. Everything is taking a little bit longer, but we’re hoping to be in there by early summer. Looking more broadly, Covid was a huge unknown for the company. At one point, we thought there would be a huge decline in our business because every retailer was shut down. But we’ve gone from projecting declines of 20 to 25 percent to achieving 14 percent growth [companywide] and over 10 percent growth in North America. I think the long-term trends show consumers are going to be more active and do more things outside. That aligns with the product categories we’re in—and with the opening of this store.

Why Denver and why the Basecamp location?

The Denver area is an important one for our business. It’s certainly an epicenter for where people are active and enjoy different activities from the “city to the summit” [a play on the brand’s recent trade show theme]. We also have an office in Longmont with development and design teams for some of our product categories, so we have more resources locally that can help support and learn from the store. As for the new Basecamp location, there will be other outdoor brands in that one area, so it makes that space much more attractive.

Will the store sell only Thule products or other brands as well?

This is just going to be a Thule brand store, where customers can experience the breadth of our entire product portfolio. We have 30 different product categories that we’re in, and this is an opportunity to showcase them all together.

How will you measure success with this venture? Is it purely financial or is there a larger brand awareness campaign that’s critical here?

For us, success is a broader exposure for consumers to our entire portfolio of products in a high-quality experience. This space will be good for our brand even if they experience our products in the Denver store but wind up purchasing at another retail location. We’ll learn from this too—what’s the right way to merchandise, for example. Normally, feedback gets muffled by the time it goes from the retailer to the rep to us. Getting that direct input will be extremely important and helpful.

Are there plans to open more stores?

Our ambition in all of North America is to open a store or two a year. We think that allows us to put the quality of experience and breadth of our products together for more consumers. It’s also an opportunity for us to start talking about our sustainability efforts and our focus on getting more people outdoors. We can also run events such as teaching parents how to be active with their kids, how they can get into jogging with a newborn, or hiking with a child. When the travel market opens up, we can teach people about packing a bike travel bag. This is an opportunity to help educate consumers.

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