At the new REI Co-op store in North Conway, NH, guests will find an abundance of opportunities that extend far beyond a traditional shopping experience. Set near the entrance of the White Mountains, the 25,000-plus-square-foot store seeks to connect co-op members with nature rather than solely focusing on commerce and represents a fundamental shift in the retail experience.
The space was created in collaboration between IA Interior Architects, REI’s internal design team and Architect of Record LEVY Architects. Its new experiential, service-retail model puts less focus on in-store product and instead “leads with experience, education, consultation and community,” says Caroline Beaulieu, designer for IA Interior Architects.
When creating the space, the design team took a less-is-more approach with the architecture of the existing building, only minimally altering the existing structure in support of REI’s sustainability goals. To repurpose the two-story timber storefront and define the lobby, they added a 50-foot metal canopy and a new vestibule. A double-height atrium bathes the entrance in natural light and added merchandisable timber-slat walls create an outdoor-essentials marketplace.
From there, a visitor pathway leads to the heart of the store—the experience and rental bar anchored by a service desk of reclaimed wood clad in hot rolled steel. Long workshop tables, metal stools and benches are convenient for guide and workshop use.
At the back wall, oversized glass-paned barn doors reveal the full inventory of rental gear and shop services. Inviting lounge seating can spur conversation or book browsing. The open plan and multipurpose displays are designed to be flexible for future growth, as well as special events and community gatherings.
“We devoted one-third of the floor space at the heart of the store to this communal space,” Beaulieu says. “It’s anchored by a multifunctional service counter in front of an open back-of-house ‘gear garage’ that showcases to the customer the robust rental program. The space also facilitates workshops and guided tour programs that connect visitors and locals alike to the best means to explore the nearby recreation area. These programs leverage community and non-profit partners to support the success of the region.”
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Jared Pearce, experience design manager for REI, says the design team’s goal was to reduce the friction of delivering the gear, expertise and services so as to maximize time outside. “This experiential, or service-retail, concept is the first store to be located not where members live and work, but instead where they get outside and play.”
While the store in North Conway is the co-op’s first location in the state, REI has nearly 53,000 members in New Hampshire and offers guided multi-day and day outdoor trips in the White Mountains. Beaulieu says finishes within the space reflect the local area.
“The back wall is clad in a corrugated metal roofing with a beautiful patina that was reclaimed from a nearby warehouse,” she explains. “Rough sawn Douglas fir creates architectural delineation throughout the gathering spaces, and unfinished plywood lends a humble sensibility to the fixture kit. The in-store experience is about outfitting the customer with great gear so that they can get outside—not about flashy finishes.”
Beaulieu adds that there is also a nod to REI’s heritage in the materiality. The bar top, for example, uses reclaimed Douglas fir beams from the Rainier bottling plant in REI’s hometown, Seattle.
“As the first concept of its kind, we wanted to create a space that REI could experiment with and adapt to future needs,” she says. “Everything, from the layout to the finishes, needed to be flexible, durable and reflect the brand’s heritage. There is a sense of transparency and expertise that comes from revealing the back of house to the customer at the gear garage.
“The gathering spaces also foster different formats of customer engagement with reconfigurable fixtures. One single space allows for traditional over-the-counter interactions, shoulder-to-shoulder consultations, and also one-to-many workshop settings—all depending on how you use it.”
Pearce says that what the design team learns in North Conway will inform their future service-retail experiences across the country. Through the unique combination of retail, education, convenience and community, this REI Co-op is sure to be a gateway to adventure for all that walk through its doors.