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Outdoor real estate: Vibram opens first U.S. store; Icebreaker breaks ground; Snow Peak expands; and more …

Find out who's opening new stores, expanding and making location moves in the outdoor industry. This month, it’s new “brand experience” stores galore.

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More outdoor brands are focusing on direct-to-consumer stores as an important piece of their “brand experience” markerting strategy. Even if there’s only one or couple of stores across the entire United States, the locations allow the brands share their stories with consumers in person and, in effect, test their merchandising strategies.

“We consider this more of a brand interaction than a store,” said Vibram USA President and CEO Tony Post at the grand opening of the footwear company’s first U.S. store in Boston on April 14. “We want visitors to experience Vibram in an unconventional way. Every office employee will have the opportunity to work in this space in order to collect valuable feedback from our consumers on a daily basis.”

The new 1,200-square-foot flagship at 292 Newbury St. features “experience zones throughout the floor allowing visitors to wear test FiveFingers on inlaid marbles, woodchips, grass, stones and even a bumpy yellow safety strip used in the subway,” officials said. The space will offer select models of Vibram FiveFingers as well as a few designs otherwise sold only in Europe.

Furthering the brand experience in the store, there is a display recapping the Italian company’s 70-year history in sole design.

>> Fellow footwear brand New Balance also opened an experience store in Boston in mid-April. The 2,500-square-foot store at 583 Boylston St. promotes the company’s 100-year-plus history and design elements including shoe manufacturing tools and materials that are incorporated into the retail displays. There’s also an eight digital screen video wall to deliver on-demand information to aid consumers in product selection.

It’s no coincidence that New Balance and Vibram both opened their new stores in Boston in mid-April. The openings came just days before the April 16 running of the Boston Marathon.

>> For Icebreaker, experience stores are all about touching. The New Zealand-based outdoor merino wool brand broke ground in late April on its fifth “TouchLab” store in the United States, scheduled to open in September 2012 in San Jose, Calif.

The new 1,500-square-foot store at 356 Santana Row will encourage shoppers to feel the softness of merino wool with a “tactile gallery” explaining the functional benefits of the Icebreaker’s soft, non-itch, odor-resistant, temperature-regulating and breathable fabric. The company has two other stores in New York City, one in San Francisco and one in Portland, Ore.

>>Snow Peak will open its first retail showroom this August as part of an expansion of its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore. The Japanese outdoor gear company will double its space to about 10,000 square feet at 410 Northwest 14th St., including 7,500 square feet of warehouse, 1,000 square feet of office and 1,500 square feet of retail space.

Snow Peak is expanding its presence in the United States to improve its distribution bandwidth, Snow Peak USA General Manager Nate Borne said. That includes upgrading the company’s inventory tracking system and adding staff. The company has a consumer marketing manager position listed, and it plans to bring a research and development employee over from Japan to help with tailored designs for the U.S. market.

Snow Peak’s new headquarters will open May 1, and the retail showroom is slated to open by August.

>> How about a brand experience just for women? Arc’teryx opened its first-ever, female-specific brand store in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo on April 26. The store, called Nuttallii, Arc’teryx for Women, is “designed to highlight the naturally inspired colors of Arc’teryx,” set on a white-on-white interior, official said.

OK, enough about brand experience stores. Eastern Mountain Sports will have room for plenty more outdoor brands as it celebrates the April 27 grand reopening of its Manchester, Conn. store, now triple the size.

The larger 18,831-square-foot EMS store at 1470C Pleasant Valley Road will feature a new section for kids, an expanded kayak and stand up paddleboard department, as well as a larger full-service bike shop. A portion of the opening weekend’s proceeds will be donated to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.

–David Clucas

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