I decided to close the surf shop and take a day off to spend time with my lovely wife on one of her rare days off. An innocent gesture. I asked her what she wanted to do today? Her reply was quick and on point. ” I want to go to the outlet mall to look for some new work shoes…”
Sounds relatively benign to me so far, although going shoe shopping with the little lady is never at the very top of my “to-do” list. She goes on-” …and since we are about to go to “Surf Expo” ( semi-annual surf industry trade event in Orlando), we should go to Baybrook Mall afterwards and see what a couple of the stores that carry surf/ skate inspired clothing and products have in stock. We can check out their selection, their pricing and what kind of sales they have this time of year. It might be a good idea to see what we are up against at the mall.” She sounded excited. I pondered her itinerary briefly and nodded with approval. It could be worse…
I have never really thought too much about mall stores, such as Zumiez and PacSun, being a competitor of a small, surf specific specialty store like ours. They do, however, carry some the same, major surf and skate brands that we have carried for decades. So, if nothing else, we can see what their buyers think is hot right now. You never know, I could be completely out of touch.
I’m almost 60 and have owned my surf shop and built surfboards for over 3 decades now! After all, surf and skate are both youth-driven sports, right? The surf industry has had a tendency to kick more than a few old timers to the curb and the youth relate better to someone in their age group than they do to an old surfer like me. To them, I am probably a dinosaur.
But back to the road trip… We hop into my gas-guzzling beast of a truck/tank and head north about 12 miles, to a new and improved, sprawling outlet mall—my first outlet mall visit! I’m trying to hold in my excitement by listening to Nas really loud (take that you youth-driven person.) As we make our final approach, upon closer inspection, I start seeing VERY FAMILIAR surf name-brand signs plastered to the outside of the buildings! WTF?? Dammit man, now I feel like a dinosaur who’s been living under a rock! I see one surf brand I carry first, then another, then…well you may be starting to get the point. I do my very best to keep my composure in front of my lovely wife. After all, we are here for her work shoes.
As we stroll towards the open air entrance, holding hands, I begin to actually tremble, and not because I was shoe shopping with the wife. Is this really happening? I feel like I am either at the pearly gates about to be judged for all my good and bad deeds, or I am at the gates of hell, from a retailer’s perspective sort of way. The only other time I feel this way is right before I walk into a jibbly bar. I feel like what I am about to see can’t be unseen. Still keeping my composure though, the wifey starts pointing at outlet stores we know to either be a surf/skate brand-name or know to be a store who also sell surf/skate industry fashions and accessories. She starts asking, “you wanna go in there?” No. “How about there?” NO! I was too rattled.
“Well Ok then, let’s just go into Sketchers and look for my shoes”, she finally said. Normally, that would make me cringe but this time it was music to my ears. That is how powerful the simple act of going to the outlet mall turned out to be for me. The entire time (an eternity) my wife was shopping for shoes, I followed her around like a puppy dog, doing my best, “this is really cool…and fun too!”
During that time though, I wondered exactly what was going on in all of those “very familiar surf brand” stores (as a competing retailer)? My thoughts were actually optimistically in my favor. I was thinking that they would be filled with year or years old stock of clothing that didn’t sell or clothes that they only had a single unit of or just a bunch of smalls and extra larges…you know, stuff like that. Basically, I was trying to justify why they would be in an outlet mall in the first place. I was always under the impression that the outlet mall is where outdated, previously unsellable inventory goes to die. I suddenly snapped out of my fantasy thoughts when I heard my wife say, “I’ve made a decision.” Yes! She had finally made her shoe decision (they were the ones I picked out for her about 60 seconds after we walked in), so we made our way to check-out. Almost done! She then decides to try to find a coupon that she saw on the internet, by pulling it up on her phone. Time stood still, the internet connection was weak, I was impatient and she was determined. My time had come. I announced to her that I would meet her outside. She was short with me and just said, “OK.”
I stepped outside into the earth’s atmosphere, took a couple of breaths, looked to my left and made a gut call. I went into a “VERY FAMILIAR,” worldwide, prominent and popular surf clothing store….in an outlet mall. As with the jibbly bar analogy, I already thought I knew what would be inside but still had that uneasy feeling. What I saw was an enormous inventory of garments carefully marketed, folded, racked and hung. On display were the newest of the newest, in every color, every size and every garment blend, as far as the eye can see. Everything was deeply discounted (that perspective is as a customer). My mouth just remained wide open. I couldn’t shut it. I quietly meandered about in utter amazement mixed with defeat. As a 30 year veteran on the front lines of surf retail, absolutely nothing can prepare you for such an overwhelming feeling of…I can’t even think of the proper way to…I bought a t-shirt. They put it in a really fancy bag too.
I walked outside and saw my wife sitting on an outlet-mall bench. She was upset that she couldn’t pull up the coupon inside the store and when she finally did, they didn’t honor it because it was for online purchases only. Wow, there is actually a code of ethics at the outlet mall. Vendors may be able to sell you items well below wholesale but they will not, WILL NOT accept an on-line only coupon. Whew. We slowly walked towards the open aired exit, both consumed by our own private thoughts of what we had experienced.
As we walked, she would occasionally motion towards another one of the very familiar brand stores, now just using mannerisms and facial expressions, questioning whether or not I wanted to go in…No. Nah, I don’t think so. As we drove away, I could either turn left and head to Baybrook Mall or go right, back towards the island. I went right.
We both sat in silence… until I finally decided to open my mouth. I suddenly became very angry but eloquent. The stuff just started pouring out. I questioned how a shop such as ours could compete with that? How could any major brand name company expect ANY orders from their small, Mom & Pop, surf specialty dealers when a huge outlet mall nearby rents space to them and many of the other major companies, all offering very deep discounts on a daily basis? How can we compete with all of those same companies who also have their own website that sells directly to the consumer? Whatever happened to the good old days, when surf brands had very stringent requirements before they would even open you? Whatever happened to the “authorized dealer” concept?
Man, I thought I was on a role when suddenly, my wife stirred and began to interrupt my “I have a dream” speech. Be it known that my wife has always been my greatest ally, my rock, my advisor, my devil’s advocate, friend and lover. She has seen me at the top of the mountain and she has witnessed my fall off of that mountain. She has always let me do whatever I wanted to do and always had my back. She begins her retort with, “every part of your business model is in jeopardy.” Huh? She continues, “the surf industry, brick and mortar and surfboard manufacturing have all been in decline for years. You are dying 3 deaths at once.”
Let me interject here by saying that, prior to her reaction, my smooth flowing rap on the way back was concise, spot-on with occasional spitting and what I thought to be irrefutable while touching all bases. If this had been a rap off, I felt pretty confident. I got schooled.
She goes on. ” I’ve been listening to you for 30 plus years about the surf industry, about big box this, about overseas that, about internet sales crap, about brick and mortar this and factory direct that. Brick and mortar businesses are bleeding out. Just seeing what has happened to big chain stores, like Macy’s, Sears and even WalMart closing hundreds of stores nationwide and laying off thousands of workers should be a sign of the changes going on in ALL retail. You are not alone. The surf industry you hold so dearly has overpriced itself and everyone is copying everyone and then someone else copies them, for less. The stuff is everywhere! It’s not a niche market anymore. It’s mainstream! I saw really nice boardshorts in Target for $20.00! You can’t even build a surfboard anymore because outsourcing surfboards overseas has closed down all the local glass shops and probably a bunch of glass shops everywhere else too! Nobody cares anymore about where their board is made or who shaped it. They definitely don’t care whether it was hand shaped or made by a computer!
“The one thing that you are the most passionate about is no longer in demand or appreciated. And yes, you are right. You certainly can’t compete with internet pricing and the convenience of buying just about anything you want online, at the click of a mouse. You have your own vendors competing against you, either through their own websites or their own brick and mortar businesses. You just saw it with your own eyes. Everything you have ever worked for and believed in has been compromised”, she spewed. “It’s nothing personal…it’s capitalism! Reinvent yourself, diversify, write your book. Evolve and adjust your business model now or you will become extinct”, she concludes.
Wow. Damn. Harsh. How do you follow that? I just muttered, “fuck capitalism.” We sat quietly. No Nas on the way home. Morrissey would have been more appropriate after that speech. She was the first to break a long silence. She saw my very nice bag. In her attempt to throw out an olive branch, she asked in her perky and excited voice, “What did you get? ” I casually bragged, “Oh yeah, I got a really nice t-shirt. It’s a tri-blend, heather gray, premium vee-neck. Only ten bucks!” She seemed pleased and just said, “Damn. That’s a good deal.”
When we got home, I re-opened the surf shop, put the “ring bell” sign on the door and locked it. Then I went back to working on an old Hansen Superlight, hoping to hear the familiar ring of the door-bell. It never came. Old habits die hard.
Am I a dinosaur? Could be… but I think I’m hard-headed enough to survive a meteor strike. Oh-one more thing. Never go shoe shopping with your wife at the outlet mall. Just tell her they are cheaper online. 🙂