The video shows two hikers out on a jaunt along a steep cliff. One slips. His buddy grabs him by the hand barely holding on—but his sunglasses tumble down the cliff. The sun now blinds him. His grip on his buddy slips and the friend goes pummeling to his death (it’s obviously a dummy bouncing off the cliff). The message? The dude should have been wearing Ombraz’s innovative armless sunglasses.
Shelley Dunbar, the co-owner of Neptune Mountaineering laughs as she watches. She explains that this is the Kickstarter video for the brand, one of 11 innovative new companies the Boulder, Colorado shop is featuring in its brand-new LAB concept, which launched this month. You can look at the Kickstarter video for each brand on a central video screen and learn about the concept and founders the same way you would on your laptop, but then you can do something impossible from online—check out the product for yourself on the surrounding shelves. The idea is to make digital tangible in a way that only brick-and-mortar can do. In other words, Neptune Mountaineering just turned online retail on its head.
“We want Neptune to be a place of discovery, so that every time you walk in the door you find something new and different that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Dunbar.
The brands included all make sense for Neptune. Ombraz has won awards from Backpacker magazine. The Firefly climbing device will fetch gear stuck on a pitch you can’t complete. The Zero Waste Kit makes sense for Boulder’s eco-conscious demographic. But there are also some riskier brands—like the minimalist Cardomon wallet. The featured brands will rotate out after an eight- to 10-week spin in the LAB and if they prove popular enough and sell through, the store will pick them up on their mainstream shelves.
The shop chose the participants in the same way retailers browse young brands in Venture Out at Outdoor Retailer. “It was really just a matter of going onto these crowdfunding sites and searching for what we thought would be appealing products for our community of outdoor customers,” says Dunbar.
To build the concept, Dunbar and her husband Andrew hired Josh Simpson, founder and president of Ignition Lab, a creative agency that specializes in launching innovative concepts. Rethinking retail is nothing new to the Dunbars. The couple, who have owned the North American distribution rights for Sea to Summit since the late 1990s, bought the iconic Boulder shop in 2017. The place had rose to legendary status under founder and mountaineer Gary Neptune but was in danger of closing after it had been acquired by Backwoods, in 2017. The Dunbars remodeled it to be the poster child of retail theatre (see the Outdoor Retailer magazine feature on the shop here. There’s a cafe inside, inviting merchandising displays, and Gary Neptune’s mountaineering museum (including shop employee Malcom Daly’s amputated toe) is all here. Plus, since the Dunbars have experience on the vendor side, you will find a diverse range of brands on the shelves. But LAB was a change to punch back at the way online has sucked the life (and bottom line) out of brick-and-mortar.
“I think it’s a great example of why savvy independent retailers are weathering the storm of Amazon and all these big-box retailers who are eating their lunch on price,” said Simpson. “They’re surviving because they’re creating compelling experiences within the community. And I think this is a shining example of how a retailer can think creatively out of the box to create an experience that none of the big guys can compete with and at the same time, deliver something that’s really interesting and compelling to local community.”
It’s also a big plus for the featured brands who often get lost in a sea of wannabes and don’t necessarily engender consumer confidence. “Crowdfunding is not new by any means,” Simpson said. “But for a lot of consumers it’s still a bit a bit of a foreign concept. There’s still a little trepidation to kind of put your money down on something that you’ve never seen before—and may never actually see. I know I’ve backed a few campaigns where I’ve never gotten the product. So it’s a great opportunity for people to overcome those fears, but also get to see some of the newest and freshest products that are hitting the market through crowdfunding, because, like it or not, it’s the preferred method for a lot of young brands to launch.”
With her Sea to Summit experience, Dunbar certainly understands how hard it is for aspiring brands to break into prized retailers, where being on the shelf still carries cachet no matter the power of online sales. And she thinks putting these brands on display and giving them a chance is a big part of what built Neptune’s reputation with so many dedicated customers in the first place.
“We didn’t just waltz into to REI. Neptune was one of the first early adopters of new brands,” she says. “Gary Neptune was renowned for letting a small brand at the time like Sea to Summit into his store. There are other small retailers like Summit Hut, who were out looking for new innovations, but frankly it’s not typical for independent retailers, and certainly not for the big chains to take a risk on a small brand. So we wanted to continue the tradition of incubating these up-and-coming brands, which is Neptune’s heritage. We wanted to bring it back in this modern way.”
Beyond consumers and brands, the most important people in the shop, the sales force, are also excited about the energy and spirit of outdoor industry innovation that the LAB grads bring to Neptune.
“The staff were really excited by it as well,” said Simpson. “That’s part of what we pitched to the brands. It’s a vehicle for feedback for them, not only or from the community in Boulder, which is full of highly technical, enthusiastic outdoor customers, but also from the staff. Even if the brands don’t look at this as part of the process of getting to retail—many don’t even aspire to be at retail—they are still getting valuable feedback from participating in this experience.”