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Originally published Friday, August 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Retail Report

Xeko trading-card game entertains and teaches about ecology

Large booksellers Barnes & Noble and Borders have signed national distribution deals with Xeko, expanding the trading-card game's retail presence.

Seattle Times business reporters

In Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, a trading-card game dubbed "Pokémon with a purpose" is poised for growth after signing national distribution deals with booksellers Barnes & Noble and Borders, adding to a retail presence that already includes Amazon.com and Whole Foods.

Xeko (pronounced "zeeko" and short for "secret ecological knowledge order") aims to teach children 8 and up about endangered animals and conservation "hot spots."

Four years ago, Amy Tucker gave up a six-figure salary at Fluent Communications, where she developed multimedia-marketing tools for Microsoft, Nintendo and T-Mobile, to travel to Central America and ponder her next career move.

"I wanted to make a positive difference in the world," said Tucker, 37, a Colorado native and Queen Anne resident whose hobbies include snowboarding, yoga and singing for the Seattle folk-punk band Future Factory (currently on hiatus). "When I became aware of the state of the planet, I felt compelled to do something."

She persuaded longtime friend Sonny Spearman, 46, to leave her job as chief marketing officer of a software firm and go in with her on Xeko, which has its offices in the Canal Building off North 34th Street.

Artist Michel Gagne, whose work has appeared in "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and "Star Wars," agreed to draw Xeko's heroes — animals ranging from hairy-eared dwarf lemurs to hawksbill turtles. Tyler Bielman, who spent seven years with Wizards of the Coast, figured out the rules and other workings of the game.

Jude Larene, owner of Izilla Toys on Capitol Hill, was among the first to sell Xeko when it launched on Earth Day 2006. Describing Xeko as "a smart alternative to Pokémon and other mass-market games," Larene said it ranks as one of the store's top sellers. "Parents feel a little better about buying it, because maybe they think their child is not being branded," he said.

Xeko game sets cost up to $30 and come with a map of a hot spot — a biodiverse region facing serious habitat loss — as well as cards featuring animals that live in the region. Corresponding booster packs of 10 cards each sell for $4. The player with the most "eco-points" wins; points are accumulated by linking animals to their ecosystem.

So far, Xeko has produced game sets spotlighting Madagascar, Costa Rica and Indonesia. Last week, it introduced a China set to capitalize on interest in the Beijing Olympics.

Xeko also is coming out with a new line of stuffed animals made of soy fabric, an alternative to polyester. Priced between $15 and $80, the animals include a flying squirrel and giant panda.

Prototypes quickly sold out, Spearman said. "They're not your standard cat or dog or horse, so that catches people's attention," she said.

Xeko gives 4 percent of all sales, minus costs, to the nonprofit Conservation International and uses environmentally friendly materials, when possible. Finding soy fabric for the stuffed animals took more than a year, Tucker notes, and the "eyeballs" still contain petroleum-based plastics, something she hopes to change once an alternative becomes available.

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"One of our mantras is, we can't let perfection get in the way of progress," she said.

— Amy Martinez

Tidbits

Pyramid Breweries CEO Scott Barnum will receive his salary and car allowance through Feb. 7, which is six months following the Seattle-based brewery's sale this month to Magic Hat Brewing Co. & Performing Arts Center of Vermont. Last year, Barnum's salary was $225,009. — MA

lululemon athletica, a yoga-inspired apparel company based in Vancouver, B.C., plans to open at Pacific Place in Seattle in November. The company will take 2,500 square feet on the second floor next to Gymboree.

Also, Pacific Place announced that frozen yogurt purveyor Red Mango is now open on the concourse level, and clothing retailer J. Crew has consolidated into 5,571 square feet on the mall's first floor (Its store previously was on the first and second floors). A remodeled Body Shop store reopens today at the downtown mall. — AM

Four small Seattle breweries will hold a mini beer festival Aug. 23 at Laughing Buddha's new expanded brewery space south of Seattle. They, along with Baron Brewing, Schooner Exact and Two Beers Brewing, will provide samples. "We thought we should have a special event before we start filling up the space with equipment," said Chris Castillo, co-owner of Laughing Buddha. The brewery tripled its lease space last month at 9320 15th Ave S. People can pre-register at http://beerfest.eventbrite.com. — MA

Henrybuilt, a maker of kitchen systems, opened a 4,500-square-foot showroom last week at 997 Western Ave. in Seattle. The showroom replaces Henrybuilt's original store on Western and is about four times as big. — AM

REI, the Kent-based retailer of outdoor gear and apparel, appointed Jose Ignacio Lozano of Manhattan Beach, Calif., to its board of directors for a yearlong term. An REI co-op member since 1994, Lozano is vice chairman and founding executive vice president of impreMedia, a publisher of Spanish-language print and online news offerings. — AM

Athena Partners, the Seattle-based bottled-water nonprofit, has teamed with Jones Soda to become the official bottled water of Qwest Field. Athena donates profits to breast-cancer research. Athena's water will debut at the Seahawks' first home exhibition game on Saturday. — MA

The Goodwill store in Maple Valley has reopened after a small fire Aug. 6. The store remained closed through Sunday while employees cleaned up from water damage caused by the sprinkler system. — AM

Starbucks and Servex, a subsidiary of the largest passenger-rail transportation company in the Netherlands, have signed a licensing agreement to open Starbucks stores in railway stations throughout the Netherlands. The first store will open Amsterdam's Centraal Station next spring. Starbucks' only roasting plant outside the U.S. opened in 2002 in Amsterdam. — MA

Organic To Go, the Seattle-based café chain and delivery service, will open a flagship café in Seattle next month at 1001 4th Ave. It will be the company's ninth café in Seattle and more than 1,000 square feet bigger than its average Seattle café, with a salad bar, custom-made pizzas, made-to-order pasta and sandwiches. Organic to Go said revenue rose 56 percent in the second quarter to $6 million, and gross profit rose 77 percent to $3.6 million. — MA

Whole Foods Market is going ahead with plans for two more Seattle-area stores despite scaling back new-store openings after a third-quarter profit drop. Opening dates for the stores in West Seattle and Interbay have not been announced. — MA

The management shuffle continues at Starbucks, with the Seattle-based company announcing last Friday that Darcy Willson-Rymer is its new managing director for the United Kingdom and Ireland. He replaces Phil Broad, who "decided to step down for personal reasons," Starbucks said in a release. Starbucks has said that last quarter it saw a slight decline in U.K. traffic. — MA

Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Retail Report
Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to mallison@seattletimes.com or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

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