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The Nature Company Is Joined By a Growing Host of Competitors

AMERICANS are celebrating Earth Day today, but for retailers of environmental and nature products, the celebration is ongoing and is getting bigger and bigger.

About a dozen or more nature-oriented stores enter the retail industry each year, according to George Cruys, spokesman for The Nature Company, which is based in Berkeley, Calif.

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The Nature Company, the leader in the nature-products industry, was the first major retailer of its kind to enter the business. Founded in 1973 by former Peace Corps workers Tom and Priscilla Wrubel, The Nature Company currently has 124 stores in the United States and Canada, as well as chains in Japan, Australia, and an affiliate in France, Mr. Cruys says.

Last year, the store reported $145 million in sales, up from $116 million in 1992. It is planning to expand further in the future, Cruys says.

``For years, directly and indirectly, stores were offering various products for nature, but until The Nature Company did it, really nobody had focused all of the products in one store,'' says G. Robert Tod, president and cofounder of Acton, Mass.-based CML Group Inc., the parent company of The Nature Company.

The Nature Company offers more than 1,000 products, ranging from colorful mineral specimens and nature-oriented apparel to gardening tools, maps, globes, children's nature toys, and games.

Though No. 1, The Nature Company's competition is growing. Natural Wonders Inc. in Union City, Calif., was founded in 1987. Last year, the company reported sales of $119 million. Although both The Nature Company and Natural Wonders carry some similar products, they cater to a different clientele.

The Nature Company focuses on higher-end consumers, with prices ranging from 49 cents for a small rubber animal to $2,400 for an LX 200 telescope.

Natural Wonders, on the other hand, targets middle-income families. Of the store's 2,000 products, more than half are priced at $15 or less.

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In fewer than 10 years, Natural Wonders has expanded to 123 stores in 33 states across the country and is showing no sign of slowing down.

``Our intention is to continue to grow the business,'' says Robert Rubenstein, founder and president of Natural Wonders. ``We think that there is potential for 300, 400, maybe 500 stores.''

In October 1992, The Nature Company filed a lawsuit against Natural Wonders for copying its ``trade dress'' (the way the store looks). The suit is currently in the ``discovery'' stage, with both sides gathering information.

Retailers attribute the growth in the nature products industry to the ``natural'' appeal nature and the environment have with consumers.

``I think the concern for the environment is going to be ever-present,'' Mr. Rubenstein says. ``I don't think it's going to go away.'' He cites the fact that more and more children are learning about the environment in school, which in turn is creating a new generation of environmentally aware consumers.

And as nature-products stores continue to expand their merchandise, the market has broadened. It has ``led to some specialty markets,'' Cruys says.

Four years ago, Pamela Childs and Suzanne Walczak started Boston-based Zoo Keepers Inc., a store specializing in home accessories and decor that revolve around aminals.

The company opened its first store, which operates under the name City Zoo, in Provincetown, Mass., and has since opened a store in Boston and Key West, Fla. The owners plan to expand into other parts of Massachusetts and Florida within the next few years, Ms. Childs says. They donate a portion of the store's proceeds to various local animal-rights organizations.

``Green marketing is something that's going to stay with us for a long time,'' Childs says.

Yet retailers admit that it is a challenging business to keep exciting.

``Every year we see more and more competitors, ... so I don't think [that the market is] at its peak in that sense,'' Cruys says. ``I do think that it needs to change, grow, and rejuvenate.''

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