Distributor Round Table : The Future Looks Bright
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Q:Did the growth of longboarding over the past year or so surprise you?- Reggie Barnes, Eastern Skateboard Supply – USA: We really were not surprised. We have seen it coming for a while now. Having carried longboard brands for many years, we have seen it gradually grow into a major category for us.
Steve Greenidge, S&J Sales – Canada: Perhaps a bit of surprise. I think it has created some frustration in the industry due to product shortages. In many cases product that rocketed to popularity became very scarce due to the industry’s inability to forecast the growth.
Damian Hebert, South Shore Distribution – USA: Yes and no: Yes, considering it’s a weak economy, and no because of the new group of kids getting into it. Youth breeds growth, so once I saw the youth going after longboards it was easy to guess growth. The real surprise is the fact the kids were jumping on downhill speedboards and longboards.
Norm Macdonald, Ultimate Skateboard Distribution – Canada: Not really; we knew it was solid and growing. Certain regions were slower taking up longboarding and are now on board, while others regions have increased what they already bought.
Rich Auden, Lush Longboards – United Kingdom: We’ve seen it coming for a long time, though as we’ve not been working internationally until quite recently, it still came as a bit of a shock. Krijn Moens, Surf2Go – Netherlands: No, actually it didn’t. I still feel it is quite early stage. Awareness of longboards in Europe is far more recent than in the U.S. So we still have some catching up to do.
Q:Why do you think longboarding has become so popular?
Barnes: It appeals to a much larger audience than other types of skateboarding. It’s a great form of transportation, and longboards have almost become a fashion statement on college campuses. You don’t have to be able to ollie or kickflip a longboard to be able to have fun; you can just put four wheels down and go.
Greenidge: I think longboarding has an inherently larger demographic. This allows for more participation from a wide variety of participants, from commuters to hardcore racers, teens to oldschoolers, and not to underestimate the female enthusiasts. With less focus on tricks, it is a bit less intimidating for newbies.
Hebert: People like to go fast. Street skating takes so much fine tech skills that kids are scared to try such tech stuff. It’s easy to jump on a longboard and start going, and that’s all that is expected. Then the really aggressive kids go after more thrills and start bombing hills. That’s why scooters and rollerblades got popular; their learning curves were very short. And progression was also short, thus they were fads. Longboarding is looked at by many as a fad, but there is progression in longboarding. The only question is how much. That progression will determine the real future of longboarding.
Macdonald: Accessibility, transportation, no age or gender barriers, former or new skaters taking up longboarding themselves or with their kids, exercise, green thinking. No need to huck oneself down 10 stairs. Ride, carve, cruise at one’s own pace.
Auden: It’s accessible, has a broad appeal, has many uses and looks cool. I think it has a long way to go before we hit the market ceiling.
Moens: The popularity of surfing has grown quite significantly in Europe the last years. But there are only few places with really good surf spots. Longboarding offers a great alternative and is also a great way to practice. That was one of the first movements. The image of someone riding the streets on a longboard is quite strong. It makes others also want to join – it creates a very high “me too” impulse. It just looks like fun, and of course the people who longboard are happy people. It is all about surfing, beaches, sun and holiday feeling. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? With a modest budget everyone can do it; you don’t need snow, mountains or waves. This is supported by really strong social media — I dare to say one of the first industriesthat understood the strength of social media. In my belief anyone between 6 and 60 who can walk or ride a bike is a potential longboarder. That is quite a big demographic group. It is a sport, but also a means of transportation. Being a Dutchman, I am quite familiar with bicycling. If even a small percentage of all bicyclers starts longboarding, we have still a long way to go. And last but not least important, boys will be boys. We are all looking for something that appeals to our youth and makes us feel young again. I certainly am.
Q:What are some things you’ve done to help support your network of dealers as it relates to longboarding?
Barnes: We offer our dealers the top-selling brands in longboarding. We work hard to keep up with new products as they come available and update our site daily with those products. We also educate our dealers about the potential sales growth in adding longboards to their mix if they haven’t already done so.
Greenidge: Our focus as we present all of our brands across the categories we serve is authenticity. It is vital that our brands are represented by people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. With longboarding specifically, we brought Matt Livingston on board to help us get the message of our LB brands out to the retailers. Matt is a great resource for our dealers, sales reps and end user customers. As for promotion and marketing, LB has its own ways of doing things, and we have adapted to suit. We sponsor the larger international events like Danger Bay, Giant’s Head, Maryhill, etc. This differs from street skate, in which we direct more resources to print, team and regional events.
Hebert: I redesigned my website a bit to include a large amount of details to give the dealers more information, allowing them to make educated buying decisions in a part of the industry where trends are changing on a dime. We have more upgrades in the pipeline to further their buying experience in a positive way. This also gives our established sales crew a deeper understanding of what they are selling. And we’ve always supported our retailers when it comes to contests and events. Macdonald: We have separate longboard reps, promotions and marketing.
Auden: Introducing our Shopatron platform is probably the biggest thing. It takes orders from our websites and farms them out to local dealers to fulfill. We’re the first to do this internationally. The idea is to complement all the other POS stuff we’re already doing by adding value to the brands for our bricks-and-mortar stockists – who are usually the retailers giving the most back to their local scenes.
Moens: First, we have tried to bring many of the well-known, high-end U.S. brands to Europe and make them available to the European consumer. We also help young brands or small manufacturers with their brand. We believe the European market needs that kind of choice of product. It is also one of my weak spots, having done business consultancy for many years. I really like helping companies to grow. Moreover, we have aimed to make dealers more aware. This phase of longboarding [requires] dealers with real vision and entrepreneurial skills. These type of dealers have done really well. We try to help the high-conviction dealer with their growth. Longboarding has many different disciplines of skating, and therefore it offers so many options. Sometimes we support dealers by giving them a longboard clinic after work hours to educate the staff. We also try to support events or to be present ourselves as much as we can.
Q:Are you concerned about the immense amount of longboard companies out there?
Barnes: The fact that there are so many longboard companies out there is a testament to how popular longboarding has become. I’m not that concerned about it. I think that it will shake out over time and the stronger brands will survive.
Greenidge: As with many genres — like snowboarding, for instance — longboarding will go through a growth curve, which will include an increase in brands. As with snowboarding, the market will regulate itself. The good product will prevail, and better business models will win out over those just jumping in to make a fast buck.
Hebert: Yeah, to a point. It was inevitable with something growing like LB. But it’s a part of doing business in a fast-paced growth sector of skateboarding as a whole.
Macdonald: Not really. While there are far too many companies, some will never make it any further than their introduction stages. We do not jump on new projects. We have a solid program with Sector 9 and a few offerings from the traditional shortboard companies.
Auden: Not really; many won’t be around forever, and the market is evolving so fast that true innovation with product and distribution is rewarded with a big market share.
Moens: No, not yet, but ask me again in 12 months. The market is big enough and it is part of the growth. There will be many new companies out there, but eventually some are not here to stay. Things will balance out in due course. But we are concerned about the spirit of skating. We hope the fun stays in the business.
Q:What advice would you give to a longboarding company wishing to place their product with your distribution company? What should their expectations be like?
Barnes: They should contact ESS via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with pictures and pricing of their products. We are always openminded and willing to consider new skateboarding companies to distribute. If we decide to distribute a new company they can expect to be treated like a partner. We will show their product on our website as soon as it is in stock. We will display it in our booth at trade shows and advertise it online and in magazines. It is also important that they understand that it is their job to create the demand and our job to educate our dealers about the products and get it to the stores in a timely manner.
Greenidge:We do our best to bring our brands to market in the most efficient manner to enable our dealers and ultimately the retail customer to make their selection. Distributors are responsible to do this. We can’t make a brand popular; we can help it grow in many ways, but ultimately it is up to the brand owner to create a buzz for the brand. My advice is to do your homework. Make a great product and create a brand that has integrity, authenticity and timeliness. Customers can see through a smoke screen. Realistic expectations of your international and domestic business are important. If you are doing 50 grand in sales in the USA, don’t expect Canada or the U.K. to do a million.
Hebert: Get national recognition on a regular basis. Make it affordable for retailers to stock the product as well as for distributors, but don’t expect distributors and retailers to be advertisers and promoters. You know you’re the marketing arm; we as distributors [and] retailers are the supply arm. Point-of-purchase items are great, and making a consistent quality product is a major part of it.
Macdonald: As I said, we have a solid line in place now with Sector 9 and are not looking at expanding our distribution at this point.
Moens: First, we are looking for products that stand out; that is obvious. It needs to have an edge. It is also important there is some chemistry between the company and Surf2Go. We feel the personal relationship is part of the fun. The brand needs to have a clear business strategy as well as product strategy, or we can help achieving that. The product line needs to make sense –something for different tastes within a certain area of expertise. But it needs to maintain its image. You’ll see that with a lot of brands we do. Expectations are always difficult. We are able to open doors in Europe, but I am always careful [about] raising expectations. We take it step by step, and we really need to be sure the company is able to supply while growing. There needs to be some synchronization between demand in Europe and availability of product. Managing growth is a challenge.
Q:Do you see longboarding going through the same cycle as the street skating market? Boom and then bust – a flood of blanks, shop decks, etc.
Barnes: First of all, I don’t think street skating is busted. The main reason that blanks and shop decks have affected sales of street decks is because there is not enough differentiation between the shape and construction of street decks. It’s pretty easy to copy a seven-ply maple popsicle shape. Hopefully the longboard brands can learn from this and will focus on developing products that are unique in shape as well as construction and avoid the negative effects that blanks and shop decks have had on the street skating market.
Greenidge: That’s a hard question because there are things that are a reality in LB that are not so in Skate and vice versa. LB will go through a similar cycle as snowboarding and street skating in terms of a proliferation of brands. I don’t expect LB to have quite as much of an issue with blanks, as in LB the consumable is wheels, not decks like Street. Street customers need a steady supply of cheaper decks if they are avid skaters, as they break them consistently. LB will need wheels more often; however, I believe there are many choices and differing price points in the market already. We are a ways off from the private-label problem that street skating has. However, you are starting to see some chain stores starting to private-label the longboard product in addition to street product. I don’t believe that core shops will bother trying to follow the same direction in shop boards. Complete LB packages are too expensive to economically manufacture at private label, unless you have large buying power like some chains do.
Hebert: Not sure. Yeah, I already see the blank and discount thing seeping in, but they are way behind the progressive brands. The seven-ply brands are the ones that will feel the “importer” brand/blank effect, but brands that keep true to their quality and progression toward newer and better ways to make a board will keep those importer/ blank issues at bay. But they must be ahead all the time, or we will see a repeat of the regular board market. You have to produce a product that shows a real value to it – be that special shapes or special additions to the item like fiberglass or Kevlar [or] something – and make it hard for China to duplicate.
Macdonald: Yes, somewhat; it will level off but not bust. I do not see much potential in shop or blank longboards, a far more expensive proposition than short boards. Areas that have been strong may level off somewhat; other areas late in the game will grow.
Auden: Yes and no. Certainly there will be a peak, then things will die off a little, but longboarding has such a wide appeal and a greater adaptability that the trough will be nowhere near as bad. Street skating has pigeonholed itself in a way that longboarding probably never will.
Moens: Partially. I believe it won’t be that severe. Longboarding has a much more relaxed culture, and it is driven very strong from within the industry. There are also so many more options in shapes of the decks. Many brands have now a far more technical, advanced product. These are not that easily made in large volume. And capacity issues and meeting demand are still an issue. But for the less advanced products, the cheaper range of products, the risk is certainly there. It is a cycle, so what goes up, must come down.
Q:Do you see more growth in the longboard market over the next few years?
Barnes: Yes, I think we will see continued growth for at least a few more years in the longboard market. Hopefully when it does level off it will continue to be a healthy category for many years to come.
Greenidge: I do believe that LB will continue to grow into a category in and of itself in action sports shops and not be regarded as an off shoot of street skate. There is already a vibrant international roster of great brands with complete legitimacy. This will help the growth and longevity of the genre.
Hebert: I think so – as long as everyone stays focused on advancing this part of skateboarding.
Moens: Yes, still. As I mentioned, I believe we are still in the early years of a potential huge market. I was at ISPO, Europe’s biggest sports trade show, last year, and only about 20 out of 2,050 brands were about longboarding. It has been a while [since] a movement in action sports has been that strong. Probably it is best to compare with snowboarding in the ’70s.
Q:Any final comments?
Barnes: I’d just like to say that we should all be grateful for the growth in the longboarding market. It has helped our industry in this tough economy.
Greenidge: Authentic is the word of the day.
Hebert: A perfect shop in my dream would be a shop that has all levels of skateboarding: longboards, ditch boards, pool/park boards and street boards. That way the shop will be a better shop compared to the big-box/mall shops. And [it would have] all the gear to support it. No mall or big-box shop could even think about competing! Just imagine: A 16-year-old walks into a shop to get a new set of LB wheels, but his little brother wants a street board because he saw someone like Nyjah Houston on ESPN ripping it up. Both get what they want, and the shop can still sell Dad a nice cruiser board or ditch board like he used to ride “back in the day,” or some nice shoes so dad can look cool while hanging out with his kids. Basically, the best option in my opinion for retailers to survive is to be completely diverse in the industry they love. Shunning street boards or longboards just isn’t a smart way of thinking. Both have value and both will ebb and flow, thus you’ll be relevant either way.
Macdonald: Skating has been around for a long time and will continue well into the future. Longboarding is and will be an integral part of skating forever.
Moens: I have great sympathy for the relaxed atmosphere and social character of longboarding. In a time of growing individualism, there is a community sharing their love for longboarding and each other’s well being while skating. Longboarding just connects people. I just looked at a couple of videos of the Broadway Bomb – what fun! My next goal is to participate myself and be one of them. I hope longboarding maintains these positive characteristics. AXS