It's Easy Being "Green" for Real Goods

By Marianne Wilson, Senior Editor
May 2000

At Real Goods, the customer is part of the solution. So is the store design. Specializing in environmental and renewable energy products, the company has debuted a prototype that not only talks the talk with regard to its pro-Earth stand, but also walks the walk. Its designers describe Real Goods' new prototype in Santa Rosa, Calif., as one of the "greenest" stores in America.

"Real Goods wanted the store to be a tangible, physical example of sustainable-living principles," says Kent Lawson, one of the principals of PRAIRIE FISH, Chicago, a "green" design firm.

The Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Real Goods has been preaching the gospel of environmentalism since 1978, expanding from a catalog operation to a retailer with five stores and a thriving Web site. The company has developed a strong following among environmentalists committed to solar power and renewable energy. But it is now looking to expand its appeal to the growing number of consumers who are concerned about (if not 100% committed to) social and environmental issues. More mainstream than Real Goods' traditional base, these consumers tend to be highly educated, affluent and design conscious.

"For the new prototype, which is aimed at these consumers, Real Goods didn't want a retail environment that looked 'recycled' in any way," Lawson explains. "The idea was to show customers that you can be green without looking rustic or recycled … that, in fact, you can have an attractive, modern-looking space while at the same time promoting a more sustainable way of living."

The 3,600-sq.-ft. prototype is located next to a Whole Foods Market (the supermarket retailer purchased 16% of the environmentally oriented company in September 1999). It is a far cry from Real Goods' existing outlets, which have a more folksy, thrown-together look. A fountain near the entry, complete with gurgling water, sets the tone. Soothing music can be heard throughout the space.

The design is contemporary and clean, with a neutral color palette and minimal decor. The space is open and inviting.

"We don't believe in over-decoration," Lawson says. "It ends up becoming wasteful, and it also takes away from the merchandise."

The product mix is eclectic, ranging from organic-cotton clothing to composters to energy-efficient light bulbs. There are more than 400 book titles on hand. A water-testing station allows shoppers to test different water filters. A solar center is also featured.

A cruciform layout divides the space into four sections. Merchandise is displayed in shopping nooks that function as small departments for the main categories. The departments can be adjusted according to need and season. There is no signage to speak of.

"Customers are guided through the store intuitively," Lawson explains. "The flooring helps a lot."

Recycled: An assortment of materials was used in the interior design, all of them environmentally benign. For the flooring, the designers specified recycled-carpet tile with a 100%-recycled-vinyl backing (ER3 from Collins & Aikman). An adhesive is attached to the tile, eliminating the need for wet adhesives at installation. That's important, Lawson explains, because wet adhesives give off harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

"It also makes for a quick installation," he adds. "With no VOCs to worry about, you can move in immediately after it the carpet is put down."

The main circulation path is defined by a runway aisle that goes directly from the door to the cashwrap and beyond. The runway is made of recycled Douglas fir wood that was reclaimed from a demolished warehouse and re-milled into flooring. Even the walk-off mats are ecologically correct, made from coconut husks.

A multicolored compass rosette is inlaid in the wood floor near the entrance. Made out of recycled rubber tiles, it points to true north and marks the direction of Real Goods' solar living center in Hopeland, Calif., where the company has its educational and product showroom. An oversized 3M Scotchprint photo of the same is displayed behind the cashwrap.

Fixtures: The fixture substrate is a strawboard made from an agricultural byproduct of wheat straw. Plantation-grown, sustainably harvested poplar was used to make the veneers. The cashwrap countertop is made from recycled rubber tires. The larger floor fixtures have a design detail that was created with a soybean and recycled newspaper composite material. Recycled aluminum was used in the display-case frame, brochure holders and bookstands.

Lighting: Compact fluorescents are the lamps of choice, accounting for about 90% of the overall lighting. Low-voltage halogen lamps are used over select displays to accent the color. The lighting gives the store a dramatic feel. The blacked-out ceiling enhances the effect.

Defined by a hanging soffit, the circular cashwrap is the focal point of the space. Given the busy lifestyle of today's consumers, the designers thought it important that shoppers not have to waste time looking for where to pay.

"The soffit serves an intuitive cue as to the location of the checkout," Lawson says.

Additional environmental features are planned for the Los Gatos, Calif., store, including the installation of solar panels. A charging station for electric vehicles is also in the works.

Real Goods will roll out the prototype in a second location, West Hollywood, Calif., later this spring. It also will be located next to a Whole Foods store.

The designers hope Real Goods will encourage consumers to live a more sustainable life and promote green design to other retailers.

"Using green materials shows you care about the future," Lawson says. "It is a way to establish a solid relationship with your customers and win their loyalty."

What about the cost?

"Pricewise, green materials have come down quite a bit and are increasingly cost-competitive with nongreen materials," says Lawson. "The Real Goods store came in at a great price, particularly for a prototype."

"The fixtures are designed to be extremely flexible," Lawson says. "For example, the shelving and freestanding units have both hanging and peg capabilities."

Project Resources

Design Firm:
Chicago, IL

General Contractor:
Gen-Con Building Contractors
Campbell, CA

Collins & Aikman
Dalton, GA

Wood Flooring:
Jefferson Recycled Woodworks
McCloud, CA

Fixtures Manufacturer:
Contempo Design
Libertyville, IL

Fixtures Materials:

ISOBORD Enterprises, Elie, Manitoba, Canada

IPIR America, Katy, TX

Countertop and Compass Rosette Floor Inset:
Dodge-Regupol, Lancaster, PA

Wall Graphics:
Vomella Graphics
St. Paul, MN

Window Graphics
Cies Sexton Visual
Denver, CO

Walk-Off Mats:
The Ericson Group
Cleveland, OH


This article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Chain Store Age Magazine.


The circular cashwrap, above, at Real Goods is the focal point of the store. The multicolored compass, below, is made from recycled rubber tires.