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Quiz an out-of-towner on their knowledge of Boulder and two things are likely to come to mind: the sloping rock faces known as the Flatirons, and Pearl Street, the town’s retail artery that has become a world-renowned shopping destination.
The two icons are a perfect marriage for outdoor-focused retail. And this summer, three more outdoor brands will open stores along the iconic avenue—joining long-standing tenants like Patagonia, Fjällräven, and about 15 others. The move further establishes Pearl Street as the go-to shopping hub for anyone in need of a climbing, camping, hiking, biking, or otherwise adventure-related apparel, gear, or toys. “This is sort of becoming the outdoor Rodeo Drive,” says Scott Crabtree, who focuses on commercial real estate along Pearl Street and Boulder County with The Colorado Group.
Quite a few of these newcomers have chosen Boulder as their first retail location outside of their home state. Take the historically online-only Backcountry. In its initial foray outside of Utah, the outdoor megastore will open a 2,000-square-foot space on East Pearl. It’s located a block away from Black Diamond Equipment, which also chose Boulder as its first, non-outlet retail location outside of its native Utah. Nearby, outdoor apparel company, Stio, is expanding beyond its Wyoming roots for just the second time with a storefront on Pearl Street’s 1500 block. Similarly, active lifestyle brand Vuori also pushed out of its California residence for the first time, though they’re joining the cohort in Boulder’s 29th Street Mall.
“Boulder is probably the most active outdoor demographic in the country,” says Chris Purkey, Backcountry’s senior vice president of customer experience. “Because of that, you see the best outdoor brands in the world seeking real estate in Boulder, specifically, over the last couple of years.”
As Purkey indicates, Boulder is also home to a booming and highly paid start-up scene, as well as a prominent (and expensive) university. Its proximity to the Mile High City makes it an easy day trip for Denverites and the throngs of people who visit the bigger city. “Boulder is a perfect combo,” says Stio founder and CEO, Steve Sullivan. “You’ve got a college community; you have a really active outdoor population; and you’re very close to all the outdoor activities, but Denver would be in there [nearby] too.”
Data analysis also played a significant role in choosing Boulder. Many of the incoming brands developed a customer profile that included everything from where people live to where they play. In some cases, brands then overlaid a heatmap of where existing customers are and performed a regression analysis to find people who match that profile, but who weren’t yet customers. After overlaying the two data sets, brands pinpointed an ideal retail location, in some cases down to the street or, even, city block. The upfront investment ensured the brands effectively connected with their base consumers and grew new relationships, thereby driving longer-term (financial) gains.
“Opportunities just screamed at us,” Purkey says, “and Boulder was certainly one of those great opportunities.”
In some ways, the Boulder choice might be counterintuitive. After all, Denver’s metro area is home to about nine times the number of people as Boulder’s, many of whom love the outdoors just as much as their neighbors to the north. For brands, however, choosing where to set up shop in Denver is more difficult. “Denver is going through an evolution. There isn’t this one section of retail that’s just an absolute slam dunk. It’s a bit of a gamble where to go,” says Steve Stout, vice president of retail for Fjällräven, which has had a store on Pearl Street since 2013.
There’s the 16th Street Mall, which has traditionally been a retail hub, but which now seems to be attracting low-priced fashion outlets and chain restaurants. Cherry Creek is affluent, but its swath of (indoor and outdoor) malls seem to be in a time of reckoning. And the up-and-coming, outdoor-focused retail area in Confluence Park near REI could be a good choice, but it’s still, well, up and coming. However, Boulder, continues Stout, “is constantly active and it’s all centered around one single street.”
Having retail roots in Boulder also lends an air of credibility for these brands, points out Scott Sternberg, associate vice president for economic vitality at the Boulder Chamber. He likens it to the 1990s trend of Hard Rock Cafes expanding into markets resonating with its (hard)core ethos and edgy persona. Likewise, an outdoor brand isn’t truly vetted until it lays down roots in the mecca of outdoor activity: Boulder.
Says Sternberg: “When you say XYZ outdoor product brand and put the word ‘Boulder’ next to it, there’s an amplification of that brand that both validates it and demonstrates the company’s commitment to its customer base.”
Other outdoor-focused cities, like Bozeman, Montana, and Park City, Utah, could provide that same sense of legitimacy. (Some of Boulder’s branded retailers already have or are planning to post up there.) The problem with mountain towns, however, is the seasonal fluctuations. They bring crowds in the summer and winter, but quiet down in the mud seasons of fall and spring. And they’d have to contend with Boulder’s more stable purchasing demographic, especially on Pearl Street, explains Carla Brown, Crabtree’s colleague at The Colorado Group.
Crabtree points out that Pearl Street hasn’t always been a who’s who list of outdoor brands. In his 12 years of experience as a commercial broker, he’s seen Pearl’s core tenants go in waves. Most were locally owned stores until the early ’90s, when national chains realized the benefits of establishing a prominent location within Boulder’s downtown district. A flock of national fashion chains stormed in—Gap, Banana Republic, and Anne Taylor to name a few—though they only lasted a handful of years. (Boulder was named one of the worst-dressed cities in America in 2011 for a reason.)
“Slowly but surely” the fashion chains moved out and were replaced once again in the early 2000s by smaller businesses, confirms Terri Takata-Smith, vice president of marketing and communications for the Downtown Boulder Partnership. By 2008, the outdoor-branded retail influx had begun, later surging in 2019. This summer will mark the biggest boost to date, Takata-Smith says, with the addition of three stores within a few months.
The rollercoaster ride of Pearl Street’s retail history begs the question of whether the outdoor-branded bubble will burst. Crabtree doesn’t think so. “Everything ebbs and flows,” he acknowledges. “But my sense is that as those [outdoor] companies grow, they have an affinity to keep these initial stores in place. It’s going to draw people and they can go hit all of these stores in one afternoon. I think it will last. It’s a perfect fit for Boulder.”