Material Decisions are Critical as Trek Brings New Look to Stores

TFL back in the picture as bike maker strives  to make inspiring design replicable, cost-effective

By Scott W. Angus

When Trek Bicycle began considering materials for a revolutionary new store design, many factors came into play.

The Waterloo, Wis.-based company needed to meet a reasonable budget, and it had to develop an innovative, inviting and inspiring look that showcased the company’s cutting-edge bikes and could be replicated in stores around the world. Finally, the design and its materials had to reflect the essence of Trek and pass muster with its exacting executive team.

The bulk of the job fell to Krista Browne, who had held several positions with Trek before being appointed store designer.

After much research and consideration, Browne thought laminates were right for the project, and she selected thermally fused laminate for the prototypes that were presented to Trek’s executives. The executives liked much about the design, but something wasn’t right. In the end, the laminate was set aside in favor of veneer.

The new look debuted in March to rave reviews in a renovated store on the east side of Madison, Wis.

Now, however, as Browne and the others plan for the next store and others after that, they are putting TFL back into the mix. How and why have they come full circle?

To fully understand the material discussions and decisions at Trek, it’s important to go back to the beginning of the story -- a story that involves a vision for just the right environment, a determined search for the right materials and a special partnership between the store designer and a manufacturing company just a few miles away.

For Browne, the new store design was her biggest assignment at Trek, and she brought to the task a background from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s interior design school and a philosophy involving third places and a desire to make the store accessible to all – from beginning riders to longtime bike enthusiasts.

 “Whether it’s your first time in the store or you’ve been there 100 times, you know exactly where to go,” Browne said. “The design has to work for everyone.”

Traditionally, bike stores have been disorganized, overwhelming and often intimidating with little or no hierarchy or helpful “wayfinding” cues for consumers, she said.

“Change was necessary to inspire, intrigue and truly reflect our brand – one that welcomes and invites participation,” Browne said. “By organizing and giving meaning to the space, the product becomes the focal point of the consumer’s experience. The barriers come down, and navigating to the right bike and paired essentials becomes an intuitive and engaging experience.”

Browne also wanted the new store to have the feel of a “third place,” referring to gathering spots away from home and work, such as coffee houses, cafes and neighborhood bars. The key ingredients, she said, are the right location, the right space and the right people.

Trek has two corporate stores in Madison that have been open for 15-plus years, and the company had never made such a drastic change to the shopping experience. The new look will be “the foundation” for remodels at the second Madison site and other stores, Browne said.

Before Browne and Trek could truly get started on the ambitious project, however, they needed a manufacturing partner that could build prototypes and ultimately do the work on the store. Browne worked up sketches of what she wanted, such as an element to feature a single bike, one to feature three bikes and one with a mannequin to display aftermarket products, including clothes, helmets and shoes.

She and her team also looked at how other retailers such as Lululemon, Nike and even grocery chains organized their spaces and arranged their fixtures and how they drew customers through their stores.

They met with three manufacturers to discuss the fixtures and how they would produce them, and it soon became clear that Hoffman Manufacturing of Madison, the smallest of the three, offered the most versatility and the best price.

“We knew they would be a unique player with really good benefits but what also could be really extreme challenges,” Browne said, noting that the other two companies had numerous engineers and benefits of scale. Yet Hoffman won the job.

“His capabilities were spot on with what we wanted to do – steel, laminate, wood,” Browne said of Geoffrey Hoffman, the company’s president.

The designs included laminate, and the other two companies tried to push Browne and Trek into a box with their standard offerings, largely because of budget concerns.

Hoffman, on the other hand, was extremely flexible, Browne said, emphasizing that Hoffman does his own engineering.

“We needed a partner who could be really flexible, move quickly and offer the advice I needed – like, ‘In order to meet that price point, let’s not go with a full panel there,’” Browne said.

“He had the engineering and fabrication cost side of the spectrum. I had the aesthetic. It was this really great combination for development. And then to have the ability to walk on the manufacturing floor and see something being built at the same time, it was amazing.”

Hoffman Manufacturing is a 30-employee company that operates out of a 25,000-square-foot facility on Madison’s east side, about 25 miles from Trek’s headquarters and five miles from the first store to be revamped. The company does about $5 million a year in sales.

One of Hoffman’s strengths is that the company works with metal, wood and laminate, and that versatility helped seal the deal with Trek.

“None of the other companies that Trek was considering is like us. We’re local, and we do it all under one roof,” Geoffrey Hoffman said. “The others were limited in their ability to do custom work.”

Hoffman describes his company as “small and lean with broad ability and large capacity.”

Hoffman’s other customers include a well-known national Mexican restaurant chain and a national sporting goods retailer, for which it makes bow hangers, gun cases and a massive metal base for tree-stand displays.

For Browne, a critical aspect of the planning was to ensure that the new store “reflected where Trek is today.”

Trek is a market-leading, technology-driven global company built on innovative engineering and quality products, yet it has a strong, humble history that dates back 40 years to its founding in a barn.

That’s a lot to encompass in a store concept.

“Trek wanted to do retail different from the bike shop. We believe in bike shops, but knowing that we’re competing with retail at large, like Apple and Starbucks and this consistent store experience where people want to spend their time, we want our retail to be at that level. We believe we are at that level as a company with a unique and advanced product,” Browne said.

In developing a budget, Browne and other key leaders at Trek also had to consider that the concept could eventually be used by independently owned dealers who would spend their own money.

They started with a budget that allowed laminate and “very basic materiality.”

“All of the fixtures and finishes are very humble and genuine to what they are,” Browne said. “The concrete is concrete. The walls are painted. The metals are metal.”

The budget allowed for laminate, so Browne selected a high-grade TFL in three tones.

Hoffman set about creating five prototype fixtures to present to the executive group, featuring everything from the laminate display boxes to powder-coated metal tire holders. Work began Oct. 21, and the fixtures were ready for a Dec. 23 meeting with the executive team.

At the meeting, the team was torn because it generally liked the concepts and overall design but wasn’t sold on the laminate.

“It didn’t feel as genuine to our brand as wood,” Browne said. “We wouldn’t try make a bike out of carbon and not use carbon. We wouldn’t try to fake it. They liked the genuine aspect of wood.”

Hoffman is convinced that the laminate wasn’t the right kind and looked too much like the melamine of old as opposed to the newer matte finishes with texture.

At the same time, however, the executives liked the palette that the laminates offered, which featured consistent graining and finish in the high-contrast options – ebony, white-washed and a warm medium brown.

“They ended up wanting to use wood but still look back to the laminates that we started with,” Browne said.

The decision was made to go with quarter-sawn oak veneer in a similar palette to the original laminate.

Hoffman described his reaction as he saw the store coming together for its March opening: “I was blown away.” More important, Trek’s executives, who hadn’t seen anything of the store design since the December meeting, were pleased.

Hoffman’s company made everything in the store except for the graphics and the products. The white-washed veneer is used on fixture tops and wall shelves, paired with a dark powder-coated metal base. The medium tone is used on feature wall and ceiling elements, and the ebony veneer is used on vertical surfaces at the cash wrap.

Hoffman also created a wall-hanging system out of metal in the same powder-coated black that was one of two pieces designed and engineered specifically for this project. The other was the metal tire holder that can be swapped out for different sizes and adjusted to two angles thanks to a ball indent that locks down and holds the piece in place.

The store also features ceiling blades and vertical louvers by Omnova made of MDF with 3D laminates.

The silver ceiling blades are used above bikes and other products to lower the ceiling height to a more human scale and create a space that is more comfortable for shopping, Browne noted.

“Their shape and repetition create a rhythm across the ceiling that draws the viewers’ eyes and guides them through the space,” she said.

The black louvers near the front of the store are used to mask the view from one space to another, Browne added.

“They allow sight through them from certain angles and block the view from other angles. This visual shifting adds interest and intrigue to the experience.”

Now that the first store is done, the next task is replicating the look at the second Madison store and deciding how to import the design to other stores in the U.S. and overseas. Trek has a market share of more than 25 percent in the U.S. but less than 10 percent overseas, where biking is much more a part of the transportation system and culture. The potential for growth in Europe and Asia is big, Browne said.

Trek has four corporate stores in the U.S. and many more in Europe and Asia. It also sells through hundreds of independent concept stores and dealers. Incorporating the new design in the corporate stores in the U.S. could be the next step, Browne said, followed by other stores here and abroad. The priority and order have yet to be determined.

It’s likely that Hoffman would manufacture fixtures for U.S. stores and possibly make prototypes to ship overseas, where Trek would find a manufacturer to make the elements there.

Regardless, she stressed, Trek needs to be sure the design works for all of its users and is adaptable to designated areas of independent stores that sell Trek and other brands.

“One of the goals is for the design and all of the elements to be scalable and replicable in cost and the ability to manufacture here and ship to France and China or have it made there and it behaves the same,” she said. “We need to pick a stable material, something that we know will be the same here and in the climate there and behave relatively similarly.

“And how do we bring that to a dealer when it’s their space and they are a unique client every time? Their business models are different, and their budgets are different.”

That brings the company back to laminate, which even in the past year has advanced in terms of realistic matte finishes and textures that are almost indistinguishable from wood. Laminate is also generally less expensive than veneer, and it can be replicated without fail.

Because of its versatility and attributes, TFL will indeed be a primary material in future Trek store projects. In early July, Browne said, the company decided to replace veneer with TFL for two of the three tones and applications.

For the white-washed look on the pedestals that highlight the products, Wilsonart’s Beigewood will be used. Wilsonart’s Ebony Recon TFL will replace the dark veneer and be paired with a brushed steel countertop at the cash wrap and also used for shelves to highlight the products and images related to the brand.

Trek will retain the quarter-sawn oak veneer for the wall and ceiling wrap elements in feature areas, Browne said.

Hoffman thinks the TFL is a good choice: “One reason I like TFL is the image consistency over veneer so our fabricators don’t need to be selective with panels -- not in just the veneer but also maintaining a consistent finish.”

Browne concurred on TFL’s strengths and noted that, in the end, it became clear that TFL was the right choice because of the importance of quality and consistency as Trek rolls out its new look in stores around the world.

 

Meeting Trek as it is today

What exactly was Krista Browne trying to do when she created a new design for Trek stores in the U.S. and abroad? In her own words, here’s how Browne explains her goals and the look and feel of the prototype store:

- “When you come in, you’re not overwhelmed by the amount of product or the type of product. You’re overwhelmed by, ‘Wow, this feels good. It’s airy. It’s light.’ There are ceiling height changes and architectural features that invite you to explore the space. You can’t see everything at first glance, but you get glimpses and the mystery draws you in.”

- “When you walk into the front door, you are meeting Trek as we are today – the high-tech advancements, the customization options, the multiple categories in the feature rooms, the E-bikes, the mountain bikes, the road bikes, the kids bikes.”

- “We’re curating the experience for someone who might not yet know Trek and the person who might have ridden a Trek bike as a kid and is returning with interest in a new bike. They are entering the space and able to navigate it comfortably because they are not overwhelmed by all of the products at the same level right as they enter the door.”

- “Once they’ve navigated the entry space, they can choose to enter into the ride experience zones – the city area, the road area, mountain bikes, the kids area. Along the same line, you enter and meet the Trek brand where we are today, and as you immerse deeper into the store, you get the history and heritage of the brand.”

- “Did you know that Trek started in a barn in Waterloo, Wis.? Do you know where Waterloo is? There is a video on the TV screen in the back part of the store. We call it our ‘Wall of Weird.’ You see these images of our history along with images of engineering and racing and the family riding a bike -- all of the rider types that we serve.”