Three fast-growing national chains, as well as a host of independents, have discovered there's dollars in dinosaurs, treasure in trilobites and a killing to be made in crystals.
It's one of the hottest retail concepts to spring up in recent years, and it doesn't even have a name. You could call it the popular science store -- slick but soothing shops where you can buy everything from fossils and geodes to expensive microscopes and telescopes while listening to New Age music.
With the opening of Natural Wonder at Towson Town Center this month, all three of the national chains are represented in the Baltimore area. There are distinct differences in the approaches taken by the chains, but Natural Wonder, World of Science and the Nature Co. all are geared to making science fun, with no math required except that practiced at the cash register.
The companies say there are no special demographic trends stimulating the growth of their chains, but it hardly hurts that millions of "baby boomers" now have young children, and that almost every one of them is crazy about dinosaurs.
All three of the chains are crawling with extinct Mesozoic reptiles. There are plastic dinosaurs, wooden dinosaurs, dinosaur jackets, stuffed dinosaurs, chocolate dinosaur eggs. "I have everything about dinosaurs," said Kathy Kelly, manager of the Nature Co. store at Harborplace. "The only thing I don't have is a dinosaur video."
All this dino-mania might be enough to ruffle some scales, but Fred Klaucke, founder and chairman of World of Science, sees no problem. "Would you rather have your child spend a couple of bucks at a video store, or would you rather have them buy dinosaurs and read some dinosaur books?" he asks.
Nevertheless, the companies say their stores are not for children only -- and a visit to any one of them will give you an opportunity to observe the adult Homo sapiens at play. Among the products geared for the adult market: Natural Wonder's life-size replica of a saber-toothed tiger skull, the perfect desk decoration for the manager who would rather be feared than loved.
All three companies stress their educational role and say they have an enthusiastic following among science teachers. Two of them, the Nature Co. and Natural Wonder, offer special discounts to teachers, and World of Science's Mr. Klaucke expresses a hope that his stores will inspire young people to become research scientists or teachers.
In addition, the stores benefit from increased environmental awareness on the part of consumers. Natural Wonder and the Nature Co., in particular, stress "Green" themes.
Natural Wonder has announced a tie-in with Conservation International that will give the environmental group a portion of its profits. The Nature Co. has a similar arrangement with the Nature Conservancy.
World of Science's product line overlaps those of the other two companies in large part, but its product mix also reflects its origins as a catalog company specializing in science education resources for schools. Its emphasis on scientific equipment and the physical sciences is stronger than at the other two chains, and you won't find the New Age and easy-listening music tapes that play continually at the other stores.
World of Science's Mr. Klaucke said that his company plans to expand to about 100 stores by 1996.
Natural Wonder, funded by venture capital, has even more ambitious expansion goals. Executive Vice President Steve Jacobs said the company should eventually be able to grow to 300 to 500 stores. He said that the Baltimore-Washington area is high on the company's growth list.
Jennifer Kaiser, spokeswoman for the Nature Co., would not discuss future expansion plans of the CML Group Inc. subsidiary except to say "we're a healthy, growing company."
By all accounts, the three chains have been well-received in Maryland. The Nature Co.'s 2-year-old Harborplace store, for instance, is doing "fantastically well," said Ms. Kelly, the manager. She said the 2,400-square-foot store has been so successful it will expand to 8,000 square feet, with work to start in January. Store managers for Natural Wonder and World of Science reported similarly enthusiastic receptions.
The success of these popular science stores may reflect a fundamental shift in consumers' values and lifestyles toward the home and the family. If the Sharper Image, with its high-tech toys for yuppies, was the retail concept for the 1980s, stores such as Natural Wonder and the Nature Co., selling low-tech fossils to those people's children, might be the right idea for the 1990s.
"The Sharper Image is really the representative, the symbol of the thin veneer that prevailed in the Eighties," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report. "Companies such as the Nature Co. are really more representative of what we are going to be seeing for the rest of this decade."
* The Nature Co. has grown from its 1973 inception to a chain of 65 U.S. and four Japanese stores with $90 million in fiscal 1991 sales. It has stores in Harborplace and Annapolis.
* Natural Wonder racked up sales of almost $30 million in 36 stores during its last fiscal year and expects to end the current one with $60 million in 61 stores. Its has stores at Towson Town Center and the Montgomery Mall.
* World of Science, with 17 stores, one in the Columbia Mall, expects to open 15 more in 1992. The Rochester, N.Y.-based company expects sales of $6 million in 1991 and $14 million in 1992.