The state of skateshops

Ralph Miller

Local skateshop's are where you learn about skating, get sponsored and become part of the tribe.

In todays hyper-competitive world the way kids purchase skateboards has changed, as local skateshops are struggling to compete with mall stores and online retailers. The skateboard industry spawned out of garages in the '70s, but in the following decades its' infrastructure, marketing and media developed and exploded into big business as street skating blossomed in the '90's. Now, twenty years later, television networks and publicly traded corporations are in the game, and the skate retail marketplace is as cutthroat as Bain Capital.

Since 2009, the economy has taken its toll on businesses across the country, both large and small. Compounding the pressure on skate-retailers is the evolution of the online marketplace, which threatens the traditional "brick and mortar" shopping experience. How does this effect on the skate industry and its consumer? Skateboard companies are selling more product at a discounted rate to big-box stores while the local skateshops are catering to the hardcore skate-rat with more traditional products.

Tod Swank, owner of Tum Yeto Distribution (Toy Machine and Foundation Skateboards) and former professional skateboarder, takes his shopping choice to heart, "Personally I search out local businesses for most all my purchases of merchandise for myself any my family. Why? Because I like to support small business. I don't like "corpo" chains, but I do understand they are not going away. I like independent retailers because they are unique and fun. I think they are important, especially to the skateboard community and culture. They are the scene builders out there."

Skate shops, as part of their local scene, focus attention and wall space to support local and fledgling brands, contributing to the inclusive nature of the scene and helping to put brands on the map. Bob Denike, President of NHS (Santa Cruz, Creature, Independent Trucks) explains, "Generally, you can't always find the same product selection at the mall, compared to a broader selection at a mom-and-pop skateshop. Mom-and-pop shops can differentiate themselves from the mall through product selection, and a lot of them do it well."

Ralph Miller

When stuck at the mall with your parents there's nothing better than the big-box skateshop.

Trent Martin, owner of Cowtown Skateshop in Phoenix, Ariz. explains, "Skateboarding, as a whole, needs skateshops, as they're rich pools of talent. Without shop support would today's biggest pros have ever found their homes with their respective sponsors?" Martin continues, "Skateboarding is progressing so fast. Everyone is so good now that it makes it really hard for someone to stand out. Getting sponsored at shop level is a place to start. Once someone has a shop sponsor it's more likely that a team manager at a company will look at their footage. It's kind of a pre-screening process."

Longstanding mom-and-pop skateshops are a part of the local economy and a cultural hub for their skate community. For decades, skateshops have offered more than customer service -- they offer an experience. Local skateshops provide a staff of knowledgeable participants -- skaters themselves, whom the kids can get advice on board set-ups, the newest happenings and products in skateboarding, and also someone to mentor them at how to skate.

The landscape of the skate market was forever changed when big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, major sporting goods chains, and the mall shop behemoths of Zumiez and Pac Sun, (each with over four hundred retail stores nationwide), entered the scene. The threat to mom-and-pop's were glaringly apparent: these big stores offered cheaper product due to massive volume, which could be sold for less. They also started flooding the market with cheap, foreign-made, generic completes that undercut the core skate companies.

KCDC Skateshop in Brooklyn, N.Y. has been a hub of New York's skate scene for more than a decade. Owner Amy Gunther understands how the variety of retailers, big and small, all help each other, "As mom-and-pops we have more creative control because we don't have to answer to million dollar orders. It's more about what we want to do and about what we want to carry and what we want to represent for the neighborhood. Without us the mall stores and the online stores wouldn't want to carry those brands, because there's no legitimacy factor. We need online and the mall because our numbers can't support the brands. They need us because we're important and we direct the buying."

Mall retailers and skate shops, which are both dependent on foot traffic, now exist in a marketplace where shoppers need only to click "add to cart" on their computer. The ultimate convenience and specialty market, the shopper can get exactly what they want online. Waiting for your purchase to be delivered isn't the only downside though, with online shopping you loose cultural connectivity.

Martin from Cowtown explains, "The online marketplace doesn't offer any kind of experience, passion or excitement. For the most part you are just buying something. You can't stand on the board, try on shoes, interact with a person, or even get it that day."

Ralph Miller

The easiest way to buy skateboards is online -- but you don't get that skateshop camaraderie.

KCDC's Gunther concurs, that the customer experience is the primary draw to the traditional skateshop. "I have never looked at skateboarding as strictly retail; it's the culture and it's a life choice and it's important for our staff to be able to communicate that. Instead of, 'Oh I'm going to buy something online and it's on sale for $15' and that's it. Where we offer, 'I'm gonna buy this board from Rob Gonyon, who skates for 5Boro [Skateboards], who can probably tell me more about this than I could learn online.'"

Not surprisingly it's skateboarders who are likely to be the consumer that keeps skateshops in business, as Gunther happily stated, "This is the first generation of kids whose parents skateboard, this is the first time that's ever happened and we see that so much with our clientele. They're in their early to late 30's and they're bringing their five year-old kids in and this is what it's about for them. It's not about buying a pair of shoes on sale online. It's about creating a value system for their kids."

The emergence of the online marketplace is destined to, once again, makeover the landscape for both large and small skate retailers. Going forward the challenge to remain relevant in a quickly changing marketplace falls on each segment of the retail landscape. Denike concludes, "I think the community at a shop really comes from the owners and what they are putting into their social media strategy, retail space and local community. Some shops are so well merchandised and current with their selection and vibe, that you see kids going there often and hanging out. These shops are still a viable social meeting place. It comes down to how hard you want to work at making their place the shop to be."

Ultimately, we, the consumers, will decide who wins the bout with our wallets.

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