Regardless of what we think about “core” companies and which are skater owned and who we are supporting with our hard-earned money, the best example of a nucleus we have in each scene in each state or country is the skate shop. They are where you go to not just pick up hard goods and apparel, but where you go to meet up, watch videos, meet pros and if they’re one of the good ones, they are generally largely behind every local skateboard demo, video premier and event going on in the city. They connect the dots and are the glue that holds a lot of scenes together. Here we have a conversation with several shop owners around the country about the ins and outs of their shops.
Lately there’s been this resurgence of people talking about how important “core” shops are, yet hard goods sales aren’t as high and even the most popular teams such as Girl, Alien Workshop, Baker and Plan B are getting shaken up. What’s a small business to do?
Broderick (Orchard- Boston, MA): Skateboarding is always changing. It’s hard to say why these companies are getting shaken up. They all go through changes and some of these companies have been around more than 20 years. A small business has to roll with it and stay current: that means we support more established companies and we support smaller newer companies. The shop is a “street level” way for people to get into skating. You can’t learn everything from the internet or a magazine. For every “core” shop doing cool stuff there are countless parasite shops and online shops that have nothing to do with skateboarding, yet they gain from it. I think when you own a shop you should support all the people who make skateboarding great and balance what you carry.
Dan (Escapist- Kansas City, MO): Same thing we always do I suppose – hang on and hope for the best. We’re going into our 15th year in business and I worked for two shops over the course of 9 years before that. Constant roller coaster ride. Hard to not feel a little defeated at times, knowing our peak year was a decade ago and Nick (the other owner of Escapist) and I are almost 40, working at a skateshop for near poverty level wages. I tell you, it’s not easy being passionate about something.
Dave (35th Avenue- Federal Way, WA): It really forces us to be that much more diverse with our marketing and to find other ways to complete the sale, via online, mail order or whatever else we can do to get the products we have to the right customers. We still sell hardgoods well, but it is a smaller more select bunch.
Ben (Kinetic- Wilmington, DE): I think, as far as small core shops, it’s up to you to make your skate scene happen. That’s really the only thing you can control. We all started shops for the most part because we loved skating. We’ll get out and skate with the kids who are our customers. Skate at the local park, put on fun events that involve the skateboarders that are our customers. One thing that I see a lot is shop owners get other hobbies and they put all of their free time into that. It’s fine if you want to work on your race car, or your Harley, or whatever but make sure you are still skating a bit. It’s hard to tell a kid to shop at a skater owned shop when you don’t ever see the owner skating. Really, I don’t think shops or any small business, including skateboard companies and pro skateboarders, can just milk it. You have to try. The days of putting some boards on a wall and them just selling, because they are there, are gone and I don’t think they are coming back.
There is a big issue happening in our industry which drives the end.
How important is it to carry the big, corporate shoe companies to stay alive, or is it important at all? If you opened Pandora’s box and carried them initially when they came out with the romantic idea of only being in skater owned and ran shops, are they now a necessary evil?
Broderick: I’m not sure “necessary evil” is what I would call these companies. It’s a reflection of where skateboarding is at. I think for the most part, these large companies do give back to skateboarding and our shop continues to work with them. People like to point the finger at large brands but their contribution funded the new version of the L.E.S. skatepark in NYC. That action provided a place for thousands of kids to skate for free. Converse helped us to be able to have a ramp inside our store that we let people skate for free year round…. what’s the drawback to that? If they make big money off skateboarding they should be expected to give back. A lot peoples favorite skaters are supported by big brands. That being said we also continue to support the smaller brands and it’s sad to see them get economically pushed around. They are the people who set skateboarding up to be large enough for the big companies to want a piece. Is it a representation of how much money they throw out there? I guess when it comes down to it, you are more than the brands you wear and each skater out there can decide what they want to support. People need to realize that it takes a huge amount of money to make a shoe company work. If you have 1,000 dollars you can make a deck company or some tee shirts. You want to make a shoe? Do you know any skaters with a million dollars to gamble on the whims of skateboarders? No matter what happens business-wise skateboarding will still be around and no company or shop owns skateboarding. We are all participants in this wonderful thing.
Dan: Unfortunately it would be a huge blow to not carry the corporate brands at this point, considering that is four brands, three of which are our top 3 selling shoe brands, and the top being nearly 5 times the second highest. It’s a harsh reality when it’s staring at you in black and white like that. As skateboarders growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, of course we wanted to support only skateboarder-owned brands, and we really did try to hold true to that ideal. For years we did not let corporate brands in and repeatedly declined their invitations. Once the smaller skateboarder-owned companies blew their distribution wide open, going beyond selling only to true skateshops, we really had no choice but to start working with the corporate brands. Our overall sales dropped drastically once true skateboarding brands were available in all those cheesy chain stores in the mall that didn’t really have anything to do with skateboarding. At the time corporate brands were keeping their product distribution tighter and were only available in core shops. It was completely backwards. The skateboard industry, as we knew it, was built by skateboarders for skateboarders. Once the skateboarder-owned companies broke that rule, that was the moment the corporate brands had been waiting years for – they were finally able to penetrate the “skateboard market”, something they really hadn’t successfully done despite many efforts over the years.
It has now come full circle and all of the skateboarder-owned brands are struggling for their place, just like all the true skateshops were when those same brands forgot who helped them build their brand up. The industry would be in a much better place and so much stronger had these brands continued to bring all the core shops up with them instead of leaving them in the dust for quick easy money. I don’t know how any of these companies can legitimately be stoked to see their brand in PacSun, Journeys, Zumiez, etc. Now it’s really difficult for skateboarder-owned brands out there trying to make their way against the corporate brands because there’s not much left of the pie for them. Not only that, but their piece of the pie seems to be constantly shrinking because they lose team riders to the corporate brands because they can’t afford to pay them at the level the corporate brands can because they are stuck in this smaller percentage of the pie. Of course these same brands now are pushing the “keep skateboarding in the hands of skateboarders” campaign when just a decade ago they weren’t concerned with that when they started selling to mall stores. Oops. Are they really going to limit their distribution solely to core shops again when they’re already struggling? Seems like an impossible situation unless skateboarding dies again and everyone gets a reality check.
Dave: The customers who are into shoes request those brands, and at times are the only ones selling at full price. They create demand for their product, something most small skate footwear brands seem to lack, try as they might. And I watch people timidly come back to the smaller shoe brands and generally aren’t satisfied with that they get. If these brands are advertising A higher quality product, it should deliver. And the people that truly skate, know what works. Some will pay the extra money for a black/white carry over but most search through the same piles, looking for something under $40 that feels ok. Some brands are ONLY selling if they’re on sale. People just aren’t interested in $80+ shoes that won’t hold up.
It’s funny how distribution was such a selling point for a while, and now they are available anywhere. People don’t care, they want what they want and it has to be accessible. Exclusivity is more about a finite amount of product versus where it is sold. And word travels quickly these days if a new model doesn’t meet the standard.
CB (Seasons- Albany- NY): It’s obviously a double edged sword but in the long run it definitely helps out in a lot of important ways. Coming from a shop that doesn’t obsess over numbers or anything like that, it’s difficult to say exactly. The most obvious benefit is that the big guys, in a way, help carry the small, important companies and skating as a whole.
Being located in a small city, there are plenty of times where a day or two or three will go by and you see nothing but family, which is great, but when it’s a handful of boards and a handful of shoes being sold at cost to the team dudes/loyal customers/normal skateboarders, it’s pretty easy to assume the business will fail quickly.
This is fine as long as your bills are paid though. Thats all thats important to us. So, even the skate-rat homies that have so much pride in skating that they can only dis the big guys, a lot of times, they’re benefitting from their most hated enemies too.
Ben: They are really important. Like it or not, it’s the reality. They are some of our best selling brands and, with the internet, for 98% of the kids out there, if you don’t have exactly what they want they’ll just order it online. Saying that, I think shops should support Emerica, Lakai, Fallen, and Huf as much as they possibly can. I have to say I was/am really torn about the whole Nike thing, but they do bring in different customers to our shop and they do a lot of things that are really good for us as a shop. One thing they don’t do is open Nike stores that sell skateboards and all of the shoes we carry in every mall in the country like Vans does.
Do the big shoe companies still make you carry the whole line and not just the sure sellers?
Broderick: They don’t make you carry the whole line, but I think there is a certain amount that they expect you to carry. These companies aren’t jamming shoes down our throat, but they set it up so that there are incentives for ordering more shoes, you get a better deal. If you are not careful, you can get too many shoes. It’s not in any shoe companies interest to overload you with shoes. It’s a balancing act between shoe company, shop and customer that can be very difficult to calculate. Sometimes, you have to try out different stuff because no one is ever sure what is going to be a popular shoe. Whether it’s a big brand or small brand they usually have some shoes that they back with advertising and initiatives and we try to mix it up with what we think will work and what they think is going to sell.
Dan: No. Luckily we never had to get buried in that mess since we didn’t start working with those brands until about four years after their launch. Definitely heard horror stories of shops getting buried in tens of thousands of dollars worth of inventory.
Dave: No, we can order as small or large as we like and cancel what we need to, although ‘quickstrikes” are still allocated, our reps do a good job of giving us the right amount.
CB: Nah. The lines that come out are massive. It would be impossible for us to carry everything. Being that lots of reps are skaters/normal people/friends of ours it’s easy to help each other out when need be on either end.
Ben: No we can buy what we want but they definitely encourage us to take chances on stuff. You just have to be on top of your business and make sure you don’t agree to anything you can’t handle and that goes with any brand.
What is the unspoken rule, if there is one, on opening a competing shop close to an already established one?
Broderick: I think the unspoken rule is that it’s not a cool business practice to do that. Stuff like that happens all the time. Strangely we find ourselves competing with stores that are not even skate shops, yet somehow they carry many of the brands we carry. Skate companies decided to to that. These brands want to be in as many places as possible. The skateboard industry is a very complicated game of musical chairs. What happens when the music stops? The reality is that there isn’t enough room for everyone because there are only so many people who are interested in skateboarding or being a part of it. Skateboarding is reinventing itself and constantly evolving in some way.
Dan: I think it differs from brand to brand. I don’t think there is a set rule because so much goes into it. You see shops super close to one another in California. Here in the Midwest there are less people overall and less people skateboarding, so reps have to take that into consideration. If they already have established accounts with established shops that they’ve been building a relationship with for years, and are in a smaller territory, why would they open another account that is going to cut into the business of their currently established accounts and basically do the same amount of business spread over more doors, but add to their workload? Ultimately, it’s up to the road reps. If they are good at their job they know the territories well and are wise in their actions. Of course things are way more lenient with hardwood brands versus footwear. Then there’s the fact that there is also cheesy chain stores in most territories. Territory reps don’t even handle those accounts, so that’s money out of their pocket too – commission they would be making if those sales were done at the true skateshops in their territory. Chain stores are a bummer from every angle except people at the top of the brand.
Dave: Expect a shit storm. From blocking access to brands to getting customers to boycott them, I’ve seen it all. Anyone doing that is basically starting a war because with today’s rough retail climate, there just isn’t enough business to supply two shops who appeal to the same demographic. Plus if you are a true “skate shop” you know better. Find your own scene.
CB: Don’t think there are “rules,” but more etiquette and common sense. Hard to say from our experience here because again, we are located in a tiny city with a genuine, tight knit scene. Minus the mall, but thats a whole different story.
Ben: I think this is a pretty easy one, if their is an established shop that is doing right by skateboarding don’t try and start a shop near them.
In the past several pros and companies have denounced shop boards, yet these are pretty important to shops because the money goes directly back into the shop itself. How important are shop shirts and boards to the shop?
Broderick: They are important to us because they sell. Shops are more than just a place to get some hardware. People want to support shops and rep their scene and this is a way to do it. Did these pros/company owners ever buy stuff at a shop when they were a kid? We understand the whole debate and we love to support pro skateboarding. The skateboard industry is very competitive and our shop has to compete with the internet somehow. What if all the shops demanded that these companies take their product off the internet? Would they do it? No way! Capitalism is brutal at times. We try to have some price point options for a poor skate rat, and having a name they can trust and want to support, rather than some nameless blank off of eBay or some suspect sponsor-me InstaBrand that would never even be in a reputable shop. With the shirts and hats and capsule projects, it’s more of a creative outlet for us to share our message and try some new stuff. In the end that stuff works more as advertising than it does as something that makes a lot of money.
Dan: They are vital. It really has been our lifeline. Again, when these brands blow their distribution so wide that their stuff is accessible pretty much anywhere, what do shops have that can still bring people in, that makes their shop unique? The shop becomes a brand in a sense, supports a team, supports the scene, does events, etc. Shop board sales also help keep pro brands on the wall. Our board wall holds 260 decks and we like to keep it stocked. We do not make a point to feature or favor shops boards on the wall– they are actually the last boards you’ll see as you walk into the store. Of course there are some brands that have poor sell-through, but overall sales of pro brands are strong and I do not see shop boards hurting that at all. It’s also an exciting time in skateboarding with all the newer, smaller brands that is reminiscent of the early 90’s. Skateboarding needs a little shake up from time to time.
Dave: It is hands down our bread and butter. The customers that rely on those refuse to spend more than that, ever, because they know it’s the same thing (at my store anyways). Really the kids are stoked on my shop and they want to support us. They may like the pros and enjoy video parts, but if you’re doing a good job with your store, they really want to have your branded gear. Plus, people just aren’t spending the money anymore. Everything is on sale. Why should I order stuff and make a fraction of the margin I do with our branded gear? And I market my shop at the same time. It’s foolish to not do it.
CB: Shop gear is important for sure. We go out of our way to have our board wall lined with small, skater owned companies. We keep our little online store fully stocked with all the small companies so that people anywhere can get a hold of those brands. Most of the time we sell boards online we lose money. It’s all good. We really just want the good stuff out there and really work hard to make that happen. We don’t even have shop boards on the board wall or anywhere in sight. They are stashed in the back room. We do collabs with friends on our shop boards. We make them little projects. We have done a few different fake pro boards for homies of the shop for no reason other than for fun. We don’t have blanks and we don’t have longboards. As for shop tees, yeah people like to rep their shit, and I think that’s sick. That should be happening everywhere with every normal skate shop. When you think about it, repping a brand name shirt that you have no personal connection to is pretty hard to do so a shop tee is always a logical alternative to that.
Buy shop tees at every shop you visit!
Ben: It’s something you have to have. People expect it. We really encourage people to buy pro decks because we believe in professional skateboarding. We encourage/force all of our employees and shop riders to ride pro/branded decks and we don’t put our shop decks on the board racks with the pro boards. These are subtle hints to the kids that if you can afford it you should buy a pro board and support skateboarding. That being said, it’s much better to have kids who can’t afford the $50 for a pro board to be riding something quality they got from us then the garbage they are sold at the mall. I think brands have lost sight of the core skate shop. They wonder why the small shops are not supporting them or surviving at all. Real skateboarders, the ones who are going to stick with it more than a year, or want to support real shops, they see these brands sold at Zumiez and Tilly’s and all of these other ridiculous places and they are rejecting them. They don’t want the mall brands. If you give your brand away, you lose the skateboarders, the shops, then your brands becomes Jimmy’Z or Vision Street Wear.
What keeps your shop more than anything else? Hardgoods? Clothing? Shoes?
Broderick: Shoes are the top selling category at our shop. Next is hardgoods, and after that is clothing and softgoods.
Dan: Hardgoods and footwear is what sells the best for us. Apparel, not so much. Many skateboarders won’t buy skate brand jeans because they think they’re too expensive. Of course I would imagine this differs a little depending on where you are located. Most skateboarders don’t have a lot of disposable income, so it’s the necessities that will always sell first.
Dave: For us it’s A mix. We are known as a skateshop, so shop decks and hard to find small brands drive people to us, but limited shoe releases and having the basics available always is what people want.
CB: Our loyal customer base keeps our shop going more than anything. Without them we wouldn’t even be a shop. If you want an answer to what was listed it’d be a really good combination of all 3.
Ben: Shoes are definitely the biggest part of our business but we sell a lot of clothes and boards as well. It’s probably 40% shoes 35% hard goods 25% apparel.