Desk-bound urbanites are going wild for a piece of wilderness as nearby as a telephone and as remote as northern Idaho.Coldwater Creek's catalogs offer polar bears, snowcapped mountains and Northwest Indian art suitable for escapist fantasies under fluorescent office light.
"The theme of the catalog is north country," says Coldwater Creek owner Dennis Pence. "We sell that feeling of a pre-industrial lifestyle."
That's an image not too far removed from this tourist-and-timber town of 5,200 located on Lake Pend Oreille between the Selkirk Range and the Cabinet Mountains, 60 miles south of the Canadian border in Idaho's panhandle.
The rustic life seems most attractive to those farthest from it. Shoppers from Southern California, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other major eastern markets have helped double the Coldwater Creek operation annually since 1983.
"They love nature, they live in the city," Pence says.
Sue Lindsey, customer service representative, says Coldwater Creek has a typical shopper profile: a 30-year-old woman attorney from San Diego who's in her Volvo stuck in freeway traffic, wishing she were in Yellowstone National Park.
Pence and his wife, Ann, both 41, are themselves corporate refugees. He was in marketing in New York City; she was in advertising in San Francisco.
"We were both sick and tired of the big city," he says.
With visions in their heads of dolphin jewelry and loon coffee mugs, the Pences settled here to open a catalog store.
"We set out to sell to us," he says. "We know who we are and what we want."
They walked along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille and came up with Coldwater Creek, "a name that felt good," Pence says.
Their first item was an Indian design belt buckle, advertised in a brochure mailing of 2,000. They took orders in their bedroom, kept the inventory in a closet and shipped packages from the dining room table.
Today, the 27-person Coldwater Creek operation covers 9,000 square feet, "and we are completely out of room," Pence says.
The inventory runs from cassette tapes of Carlos Nakai's Native American flute to leaded stained-glass sun catchers depicting howling wolves on a moonlit night to an Idaho silver-coated alder cone necklace.
"Now, a big mailing for us is three million catalogs," Pence says. He expects to increase to seven million this year.
"Our customers are going to tell us when to stop doubling every year. We'll listen to them," he says. "If we stay the same size we are, that's great. If customers want more, we have an obligation to expand."
Pence says he expects to move the company's operations to larger quarters this year. Coldwater Creek also has a small downtown retail store, opened because customers asked for it, he says.
Pence won't talk specifically about finances, saying only that he and his wife started the company with personal savings and that it's grown to a multimillion-dollar business.
He says he would like to expand the retail store, maybe someday turn it into a tourist attraction on the lake featuring salmon bakes and other regional temptations.
"It's logical to continue to find ways to sell through the catalog," rather than opening a chain of retail outlets, Pence says. "We cannot offer the Coldwater Creek experience in Miami, Florida."