Stocking, Selecting, And Selling Surfboards

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“Uh, can you call me back in ten minutes? I’m selling a board. This was an incredibly frequent response to my calls seeking comment for this feature. I probably interrupted—and maybe ruined—at least one surfboard sale for every retailer I called. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, aside from me having bad timing, what it really means is that just about every shop queried was busy selling surfboards. Specialty retailers seem to be in unanimous agreement; there simply hasn’t been a better time for selling surfboards.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that surf is in the limelight at the moment. But it’s no secret, either, and tons of big-box, mall, and other high-volume chains are getting deeper into the surf retail game. In response, many specialty stores are countering with a focus on more hardcore products, namely surfboards. Carrying surfboards not only further distinguishes specialty from those stores, but also gives them the added advantage of selling a product that they don’t have to compete with the big-box stores on. (Of course, retailers still have to compete with the backyard board builders, but that’s a whole ‘nother article).

Sure, they make a low margin, are difficult to backstock and order, and take up tons of valuable space, but many specialty stores are winning on the hardgoods game. Here’s a peek into some hardgoods strategies including backstocking, issues with new, used and custom boards, employee education, and sales techniques.

Taking Stock

When you ask a bunch of different retailers questions, by necessity you’re going to get a variety of answers. There was one thing, though, that every shop believed to be one of the most crucial aspects to moving surfboards: having inventory.

“We don’t want to be missing sales. That’s the whole key to us having 200 boards on the floor, explains Dickie O’Reilly, managing partner of Spyder Surf Shop in Hermosa Beach, California. “By having that kind of selection, a customer can ask to see a six-four in a bunch of different widths, thicknesses, and slightly different outlines. In other words, the goal is that a customer should never have to go anywhere else because your shop didn’t have what they were looking for. And the only thing worse than not having what they wanted in stock is not having it and then talking them into something different than what they were looking for. Chances are good if you do this that customer may have just made their last purchase at your shop.

Keeping a full and varied inventory isn’t just beneficial in immediately apparent ways, either. Sure it’s key to making sales on a day-to-day basis, but if you’re going to be a serious hardgoods player, you have to develop and maintain that reputation. So if February rolls around and your surfboard stock looks barren, it could be doing damage to that rep you’ve worked hard to maintain. “When customers come in, they remember your stock levels, even if they’re not buying, explains Chris Todd, surfboard buyer for 17th Street Surf Shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “So if they come in and it’s weak and you’ve got holes, they’ll go somewhere else. We always keep a strong stock level. Obviously in the off season I won’t triple up every single rack space, but it’ll still be full and look clean—we don’t want to have any open spaces.

It seems like an obvious way of approaching business—always having what the customer wants in stock. With surfboards, however, keeping inventory full can be more challenging than having an apparel vendor send out a quick fill-in order of walkshorts. After all, surfboards rarely take less than four weeks from order to delivery, and six to eight weeks or longer is more realistic. So what happens if you run through all your seven foot pintails in November and another big northwest spinner pops up that has customers clamoring for mini-guns? If you didn’t happen to preorder a batch months ago that are about to be delivered, those sales are going down the strt.

Smart preordering is key and goes without saying, but there are other solutions. One strategy that retailers are increasingly using to avoid this scenario is the art of backstocking. As hardgoods have become more and more important to specialty stores, more shops are dedicating important real estate to backstocking boards. “I’ve got lots of designated places for backstock, says Sean Mattison of Surf Ride in Oceanside, California. He estimates that between its two locations, Surf Ride carries between 1,200 and 1,400 surfboards and at least 43 different brands, making it one of the most complete, if not the biggest surfboard retailers out there. “I’m kind of a master at being a squirrel and packing things away, he continues, “but the key’s having the real estate to be able to do it. It’s very aggressive, but also very dangerous, because there’s not a lot of margin in surfboards. Plus, they can damage, so a lot of thought goes into where to put these things.

For retailers with vertical space, backstock doesn’t have to be buried in a backroom that customers can’t see. At 17th Street, Todd proudly shows off his backstock on a second-level landing above the floor racks. “That area is basically doubles and triples of what we have below, he says. “If we run out, we can refill it, and if a customer sees an airbrush up there that catches their eye, then we can bring it down. It’s viewable and totally shopable. We got the idea when we saw something similar at K-Five {Boarding Shop}.

Of course not all specialty stores have the space they would like for backstock, but there are some creative ways to keep a healthy supply of boards at your disposal. One way is to keep in touch with the manufacturer as an order is going through. If you ordered it far enough out, you can request that they pace their production as you have a better idea of sizes you’ll need sooner and what isn’t as urgent. However, unless you want to get on the factory’s bad side quickly, it’s probably not a good idea to flex this option with every order. But with an open dialogue, you can often work out a schedule that ends up being good for all involved.

New Order

Shortboards, longboards, epoxies, softboards, funshapes, fish, guns, and all variation of hybrids—it’s amazing how many types of boards are out there these days. While the traditional shortboard made up the majority of sales in every shop polled, two board types were definitely on the rise: funboards and women’s boards.

On the funboard side, part of this is attributable to the fact that more surfers are filling up their quivers with more than just a shortboard and a longboard. “The two-board quiver is gone, says Bird at South Coast Surf Shop in Ocean Beach, California. “Now people will have a three- to five-board quiver. They call it the golf-club syndrome. Fish-type boards have also been very popular, but most retailers said that fun shapes were the fastest-growing style of board.

The spike in fun shapes is due in no small part to the most dramatic increase in new surfers since the 60s. These are surfers who are looking for a board that floats, paddles, and can still manage to turn relatively easily. And a majority of these new surfers are women. “They’re buying a lot of our seven- to eight-foot funboard egg shapes, says Todd. “We’ll sell them longboards, shortboards, and fish, but the majority of our women customers buy that fun shape.

Another variety of board that’s been doing well for some time is the Tuflite-made epoxy boards. Many retailers love the higher margins they get on the Surftechs, which hover around 30 percent. In addition, Surftechs are designed to be more durable than traditional polyester boards, especially when it comes to heel dents. You’d think this would make it harder to sell protective accessories like a board bag or deck patch, but Surf Ride’s Mattison says the opposite is true. “Everybody wants to take care of their purchase, he explains. With a higher pricepoint, many retailers say Surftech buyers are even more likely to add on accessories to protect their investment.

Private Party

In the 1950s, shapers needed a more functional place than their factories to sell boards. In response, many cleaned up the entrances to their factories and started selling their boards in front and moved the shaping and glassing operations to the back. Thus, the first surf shops were born. These days few manufacturing operations share a wall with their retail shops, but the notion of private-label boards is still alive and well.

One key advantage to building your own label is getting a higher margin in a business that typically returns twelve- to twenty- percent margins. Many private label retailers will tell you this is not always the case, though, and much of the time the cost savings gets passed along to consumers.

Spyder Surfboards stocks 95 percent of its 200-plus board inventory with its own surfboards, which retail for around 400 dollars, according to O’Reilly. The remaining five percent are Surftech and various brands of softboards. They’ve tried carrying more of other manufacturers’ boards, but found selling their own label works best. “We’ve had the most success with our own brand, he says. “We can build anything and turn it around quickly.

The other role private-label boards can play is filling in pricepoint holes. “We’ve done really good with those, says Mattison of their Surf Ride boards. “You want to bridge a pricepoint gap between the used and new boards, so this does that.

The other part to a complete inventory is covering a variety of pricepoints. This is one of the downsides to only carrying private-label boards. Shops that stock multiple brands are able to cover a broader range of pricepoints, since not every manufacturer commands the same price for a board.

Feeling Used

Used boards are a great way to fill-in a lower pricepoint, but they come with their own set of issues. For one, even if they’re clean, a row of used boards will never make your shop look as good as a rack of freshies. At Surf Ride, Mattison likes to keep the new-to-used ratio at about 70/30. “The aesthetic of the shop is really based around the new boards, he explains. “We want the shop to look good, and brand new boards do that.

For this reason, some shops refuse all but the cleanest used boards. Not carrying used boards may keep the shop looking tidy, but taking a used board usually translates into an opportunity to get that customer into a new board. “We hardly make anything, if we’re lucky, on a used board, says O’Reilly. “We’re taking them on trade to get a guy on one of our surfboards.

They can make your shop look shoddy, cleanup takes up a fair bit of time, and it’s the type of inventory that you can’t control when or how much of it’s going to come in. Still, consider how much money corporate companies spend trying to woo new customers, and it starts to make sense to do whatever it takes to get someone hooked on your shop—even if it means buying a trashed softboard from them and then selling it for a low margin.

But are the margins low? Not always, according to Bird. “If you do it right, you can make a good margin on a used board. With consignments you have no money in your inventory, so if you turn it quick enough—and we turn boards pretty quick—then there’s basically no cost into the merchandise. So whatever percentage you get is good. Bird’s policy is to take a minimum of 30 dollars, or twenty percent, which matches or beats the margins for new polyester boards.

We Don’t Make It Until You Order It

In theory, selling a custom board is as close to a perfect sale as it gets. Most of the cost is paid up front, customs never take up space on the sales floor, and they offer the chance to establish a close and hopefully long-term relationship with a customer. Not to mention they will usually include extras like airbrushing and other features that can end ricepoint, many retailers say Surftech buyers are even more likely to add on accessories to protect their investment.

Private Party

In the 1950s, shapers needed a more functional place than their factories to sell boards. In response, many cleaned up the entrances to their factories and started selling their boards in front and moved the shaping and glassing operations to the back. Thus, the first surf shops were born. These days few manufacturing operations share a wall with their retail shops, but the notion of private-label boards is still alive and well.

One key advantage to building your own label is getting a higher margin in a business that typically returns twelve- to twenty- percent margins. Many private label retailers will tell you this is not always the case, though, and much of the time the cost savings gets passed along to consumers.

Spyder Surfboards stocks 95 percent of its 200-plus board inventory with its own surfboards, which retail for around 400 dollars, according to O’Reilly. The remaining five percent are Surftech and various brands of softboards. They’ve tried carrying more of other manufacturers’ boards, but found selling their own label works best. “We’ve had the most success with our own brand, he says. “We can build anything and turn it around quickly.

The other role private-label boards can play is filling in pricepoint holes. “We’ve done really good with those, says Mattison of their Surf Ride boards. “You want to bridge a pricepoint gap between the used and new boards, so this does that.

The other part to a complete inventory is covering a variety of pricepoints. This is one of the downsides to only carrying private-label boards. Shops that stock multiple brands are able to cover a broader range of pricepoints, since not every manufacturer commands the same price for a board.

Feeling Used

Used boards are a great way to fill-in a lower pricepoint, but they come with their own set of issues. For one, even if they’re clean, a row of used boards will never make your shop look as good as a rack of freshies. At Surf Ride, Mattison likes to keep the new-to-used ratio at about 70/30. “The aesthetic of the shop is really based around the new boards, he explains. “We want the shop to look good, and brand new boards do that.

For this reason, some shops refuse all but the cleanest used boards. Not carrying used boards may keep the shop looking tidy, but taking a used board usually translates into an opportunity to get that customer into a new board. “We hardly make anything, if we’re lucky, on a used board, says O’Reilly. “We’re taking them on trade to get a guy on one of our surfboards.

They can make your shop look shoddy, cleanup takes up a fair bit of time, and it’s the type of inventory that you can’t control when or how much of it’s going to come in. Still, consider how much money corporate companies spend trying to woo new customers, and it starts to make sense to do whatever it takes to get someone hooked on your shop—even if it means buying a trashed softboard from them and then selling it for a low margin.

But are the margins low? Not always, according to Bird. “If you do it right, you can make a good margin on a used board. With consignments you have no money in your inventory, so if you turn it quick enough—and we turn boards pretty quick—then there’s basically no cost into the merchandise. So whatever percentage you get is good. Bird’s policy is to take a minimum of 30 dollars, or twenty percent, which matches or beats the margins for new polyester boards.

We Don’t Make It Until You Order It

In theory, selling a custom board is as close to a perfect sale as it gets. Most of the cost is paid up front, customs never take up space on the sales floor, and they offer the chance to establish a close and hopefully long-term relationship with a customer. Not to mention they will usually include extras like airbrushing and other features that can end up making it a hefty sale. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and anyone out there who’s sat behind a surf-shop counter knows that a custom board order doesn’t always go exactly as planned.

Despite the chance that things could go wrong in any number of ways, the biggest upside is the opportunity to develop a meaningful rapport with a customer. “It’s got to go from the customer’s head to paper to shaper to color guy, and then make its way all the way back and be perfect, explains Dickie O’Reilly. “We like to build that relationship with a customer who wants a custom board, though, because hopefully the board worked and he’ll come back to us to redo it or with a slight tweak.

Things more often than not go well with customs, but it’s inevitable that you’ll have sales go south once in a while, and it’s often because the board takes longer than expected. Custom boards rarely take less time than the customer is quoted, but if you overestimate the time, they are less likely to order the board knowing it’s going to take eight or more weeks.

So what can you do? The best way to quote a time frame for a board is to have a firm idea of what the busy and slow seasons are at the factory—and be aware they’re not the same for every board builder. For instance, some manufacturers are swamped in February building their summer prebooks while for others this may be the slowest time of the year. It could mean the difference between getting a board in two weeks versus three months. Managers should keep up-to-date on this sort of information and then pass it down.

There’s another time issue with custom boards, too: the time it takes to make and complete the sale. Between talking the customer through the dimensions and airbrush, writing it up, calling to check up on the board, and then going back and forth with the customer about when and if it’s done, custom boards can eat up a lot of valuable employee time. At Surf Ride, Mattison definitely offers custom boards, but they’re not his preference and they make up only about five percent of his board sales. “Custom boards are important, he admits, “but in the overall scope we want to have four or five boards a customer could pick from that are insane. To be able to sell boards off the rack that are just as high-performance as if a guy custom ordered it—that’s good retail.

For all the upsides to custom boards—and they are significant—there are plenty of downsides as well. The bottom line is that if a customer wants one, you should be able to offer it to them. Not everyone feels the need to custom-order a board, but it’s another variety of customer that your shop should be able to cater to.

Passing The SAT (Surfboard Aptitude Test)

The number-one way to stop a surfboard sale dead in its tracks is for an employee to respond to a customer’s question with, “I don’t know. Perhaps the only thing that’s worse is to give a drastically wrong answer. The name of the game, especially in surfboard sales, is building trust with the customer. More specifically, they need to trust that you know what the hell you’re talking about when they ask you a surfboard question. After all, they’re spending a fair bit of money on a product they can’t test out, and so they’re counting on you to answer any and all questions about how it should ride. It’s a simple fact that knowledgeable people sell surfboards.

Educating staff is an area that shops can never do enough of. A shaper is by far the best surfboard salesmen there is, but because retail customers don’t usually get the chance to talk directly to the shaper, the staff are basically acting as his representatives. This doesn’t mean everyone on the floor needs to own a Skil 100, but there’s a direct relationship between an employee’s board knowledge and how many boards they sell.

At minimum, shops should have an employee who talks to the shaper(s) and passes the information on to the rest of the staff. “I’ll usually do mini-clinics with th