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Posted: November 25, 2008

Green one-stop shop

Ellie's Eco Home Store opens in Boulder

Rebecca Cole

Earlier this month, Steve Savage whipped out his iPhone to check how far the Dow had plunged already — 400 points and it wasn’t even noon on the East Coast.

Savage, president of Eco-Products, had reason to be worried about the economy. In two days, he planned to launch a 9,700-square-foot retail store in Boulder carrying eco-friendly home, office and building products.

Ellie’s Eco Home Store is Savage’s long-awaited dream of creating a one-stop shop for "everything eco: from laundry detergent to home-building supplies, clothes, home goods and cosmetics. (Watch video interview)

It’s about time.

After all, it was 18 years ago that Savage and his father, Kent, came up with the concept while hiking Longs Peak. The two went on to found Eco-Products, first a purveyor of green office products and now the world’s largest seller of compostable food service cups, utensils and containers. The company had $40 million in revenue this year and expects to net $100 million in 2009. Ellie’s, an offshoot of Eco-Products’ green-building business launched in 1996, completes their vision.

Savage said even with a down economy, consumers are embracing environmental products.

"I never thought that the public was ready for an environmental store such as this," Savage said. "Today there are a lot of great quality products and the public is getting more educated about them and are looking for them."

The market for green products is doubling every year, and eco products are where organics were 10 years ago, Savage said. This year at Expo West, the largest natural and organics trade show, was the first time booth space for eco products outpaced that of organic food products.

"Is the economy a concern? Sure, it’s a concern," he said. "But we also believe this is such a positive concept, that there’s not another store like it, it’s unique enough to weather through the storm."

He might be right. Forty-four percent of consumers are willing to pay extra for green gifts; 20 percent will purchase more eco-friendly products this holiday season than they did in the past, according to Deloitte’s annual holiday shopping survey released earlier this month.

But it’s a bit of a mixed bag for Savage. Deloitte’s survey also found that spending is likely to be down in home improvement purchases and that "value-oriented stores (think Wal-Mart, Costco and dollar stores) are expected to be the top shopping destination."

"There’s a perception out there that organics and naturals are more expensive, and the truth is that they are," said Carly Marriott, Ellie’s store manager. "But our mission is to make natural and organic products as affordable as possible."

Right now it hasn’t been easy. As a new store, Ellie’s doesn’t have the buying power of Target and its shelf-space is small in comparison. Instead, Marriot said they are focusing on a "tier" approach to pricing, with high-end products like organic linens (100 percent organic, 250-thread count twin sets are $120) and lower-priced items negotiated through close-out deals with manufacturers.

"The idea is to bring all the conveniences of home goods and building supplies together under one roof, and that’s green as well," she said.

Most important, Marriot said, is quality.

"We have to be price competitive," Savage said. "Everything we sell we want to be perceived as a good value. Does it have to be less expensive than its counterpoint? I don’t think it has to be, as long as it performs better."

With its official grand opening held on Nov. 15, Savage will only have about six weeks during the holiday season to decide if the concept is viable enough to replicate outside the green-friendly confines of Boulder.

Citing Whole Foods’ revenues of $1,100 a square foot as a barometer — the same as what Eco-Products’ green building division pulled in last year — Savage said his goal is to see comparable numbers from Ellie’s in order to move ahead with the company’s aggressive growth strategy.

"We had only three or four people selling in a warehouse environment," Savage said. "Now we’re adding complementary items and feel that this store can be a success."

If the numbers add up, in 2009 Savage plans to open another store next to the Whole Foods in either Cherry Creek or Fort Collins — or possibly in both locations. If successful, over the next three years Savage wants to open 30 more — in other eco-friendly cities such as Bend, Ore., Burlington, Vt., and Santa Cruz, Calif.

"We’re more and more enthusiastic about opening this kind of store in this town, even with the economic downturn," Marriott said. "We think the response will be amazing."

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Rebecca Cole is the online editor at Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit "think-and-do" tank that drives the efficient use of energy and resources. Learn more about RMI's latest initiative, Reinventing Fire, to move the U.S. off fossil fuels by 2050.

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